Commentary on Paragraph 1 of “What Is Sin?”
Sin is insanity. It is the means by which the mind is driven mad, and seeks to let illusions take the place of truth. And being mad, it sees illusions where the truth should be, and where it really is. Sin gave the body eyes, for what is there the sinless would behold? What need have they of sights or sounds or touch? What would they hear or reach to grasp? What would they sense at all? To sense is not to know. And truth can be but filled with knowledge, and with nothing else. (W-pII.4.1:1-9)
This is one of those paragraphs which you look at initially and just say, “Huh?” It speaks in simple sentences and familiar words, yet it doesn’t seem to be making sense. The problem, I think, is that it is talking about sin, and yet nothing that it says seems to fit the concept of sin, at least as we understand it. The paragraph begins by equating sin with insanity (huh?). Then it says that sin sees illusions in place of truth (huh?). Then it says that sin gave the body eyes because the sinless don’t want to see anything. Huh?
Yet, as is always true with the Course, if we can look more closely at this paragraph, we will find a teaching that is both theoretically brilliant and personally transformative. Let’s do that now.
We think of sin as evil, as a willful impulse to violate God’s laws and injure others. Yet the opening line of this section, in three short words, offers a completely different perspective: “Sin is insanity.” We usually put evil and insanity in different categories. Think of how differently they fare in court. We put the evil one to death, while we try to help the one who is “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Imagine how different it would sound if we said, “Osama bin Laden is not evil. He is simply mentally ill.” In our categories, insanity is forgivable, while evil is not.
What sorts of things tell us that someone is insane? Isn’t it when that person says something that flies in the face of reality? If he says, “I am a teapot” or “Perhaps I will fly to the moon today,” we conclude that he has completely lost touch with reality. And that is the essence of insanity—someone has lost touch with reality and lives in an unreal fantasy world, a world that exists only in his head. He has, as the paragraph says, “let illusions take the place of truth.” In this state, the insane actually hang onto their fantasy world and protect it against the incursion of reality. They surround themselves with things that reflect and seem to verify their insanity.
I’ve seen countless movies where the police finally find the lair of the madman. They always seem to find some dark apartment whose walls are covered with newspaper clippings. Have you ever noticed that? Those clippings are stark depictions of the madman’s insanity, external mirrors of his internal state. They are his way of surrounding himself with the evidence that tells him that his fantasy world is actually real, that his madness is really sane. Usually, his whole apartment is a surreal environment carefully crafted to reflect and reinforce his insanity. But those newspaper clippings are what stick in my mind. They are the perfect symbol for what insanity does. It surrounds itself with “evidence” for its “sanity.”
And that is exactly what this paragraph says that we do. We have embraced the idea of sin. We have embraced the idea that we could operate independently from God, becoming a god in our own right, and the idea that we could attack others and benefit ourselves. In doing so, we didn’t turn evil. We simply went insane. Now we live in a completely unreal fantasy world, and we fear the incursion of reality. We fear it and resist it in the same way that a psychotic person resists the truth when confronted with it. If Uncle Fred thinks he’s Napoleon and you tell him that he’s really just Uncle Fred, do you think he’ll welcome your remarks?
This is where this paragraph takes its next step, a step that is only logical, but one which we probably find startling. It applies this idea to our physical senses. In our culture, the senses are glorified. Everyone agrees that the beauties, pleasures, and wonders of nature as revealed by our senses are among life’s precious gifts. That familiar perspective makes the following line all the more shocking: “Sin gave the body eyes.” Indeed, sin is said here to be the source of all of our senses. We are told that the sinless have no need “of sights or sounds or touch.” In making this claim, the Course is definitely not trying to win any popularity contests. Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt psychology, used to say, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” The Course, on the other hand, is saying that we already did that. That’s the state we’re in now, and that’s the problem.
This strange notion that “sin gave the body eyes” is actually inescapable if you accept three things:
- that sin is insanity
- that insanity wants to reinforce itself by looking on illusions
- that the body’s eyes look only on illusions
Let’s go through this a little more slowly. The Course is saying, as we saw, that sin is insanity. Insanity by definition is out of touch with reality. It wants to be in touch only with illusions, for they are what reinforce it. The insane are always unconsciously looking for the evidence that will validate their insanity.
And that is exactly what the senses give us. One of the Course’s most fundamental teachings is that the physical world is an illusion, and the physical world, of course, is the only world the senses sense. Can your eyes see spirit? Can your ears hear God’s Voice? Because they can’t, the senses provide constant evidence that the world is real and that Heaven is unreal.
In the process, the senses also provide specific evidence for the reality of sin. For sin boils down to the belief in separation and attack. And our senses show us a realm in which everything is separate and everything attacks. They show us a world of separate creatures, competing against each other, devouring each other, and being devoured in return—a world full of sin. Thus, our senses “prove” to us that, rather than being insanity, sin is the beating heart of reality.
The paragraph closes with this: “To sense is not to know. And truth can be but filled with knowledge, and with nothing else.” We don’t want to know, because knowledge, in Course terminology, is direct experience of reality, direct knowing without any intermediary. It’s more than face-to-face or even mind-to-mind. It is one Mind knowing Itself, knowing Its own reality. And that kind of direct knowing is precisely what insanity seeks to avoid. It doesn’t want reality. It wants to stay in its unreal bubble. And so, under the weight of it, we retreat into the indirect world of perception, the world of sensing. Our senses become our intermediaries, our middlemen. We don’t have direct contact with the things they tell us about. All we know is what they tell us. In this frustrating condition, we can never be sure of what’s out there, precisely because all we have is the word of middlemen. One of the dictionary’s definitions of “sense” is “a more or less vague perception or impression.” That’s all the senses can really deliver, because they make direct knowledge impossible.
So our senses, so glorified by our culture, distance us from reality in two ways. First, they show us a realm of illusions and make it seem real. Second, they place intermediaries between us and what we want to know, so that the truth of what is out there is always beyond our grasp. In short, they show us illusions and they keep us from truth. And they do it all to reinforce and protect our core insanity: sin.
This paragraph, though it initially seemed like gobbledygook, actually contains profound teaching. The only reason this teaching seemed nonsensical is because it makes links between concepts that we generally see as separate. We normally do not connect sin and insanity. And we definitely do not connect insanity and our physical senses. However, these connections, once made, have a strangely compelling plausibility to them. They open up new vistas and give us a fresh perspective on reality. That is what brilliant teaching does—it links concepts we had never linked, and makes their linkage seem reasonable, plausible, even liberating.
The theory laid out in this paragraph is fascinating, but are we willing to apply it on a personal level? At that point, the theoretically fascinating becomes the seriously challenging. For it says that I am the madman. And this world is my lair. And the trees and clouds and buildings and people are my newspaper clippings, along with the wars, murders, diseases, and disasters. They are what I have tacked to the walls of my experience, because they are what mirror the madness within. They show me a “reality” that is soaked with sin, a reality that constantly validates my own belief in sin—the very essence of my insanity.
The only reason I gave myself my physical senses was so that I could look upon these clippings and feel the comfort of their validation, so that I could feel sane in the midst of my madness. In keeping with this purpose, these senses do not show me the actual events that the clippings report on. They are utterly blind to these events. All my senses can see is the newspaper stories about those events, stories that they themselves wrote. Thus, they close me in a loop, in which the insanity within produces the visible realm without, which then validates the insanity within, and so on.
Can I admit that that is what is going on now? That when I look around me right now, all I see are my newspaper clippings, designed to reinforce my madness, the madness of sin? There are, of course, exceptions, clippings that we bring in to our experience to lead us out of insanity (the Course being one). But let’s face it, the world as a whole does a good job of teaching us that the law of tooth and claw is virtually the pillar of reality, that unless we compete against other individuals we will not get our share of limited resources, and will ourselves become a resource to be consumed by a more successful individual. Let’s be honest and admit that to some degree, we have all learned this. The clippings have done their intended work. To claim that they haven’t is mere denial.
Yet this is where the comfort of this teaching comes in. It tells us that we don’t have to accept the testimony of the clippings that fill our vision. They are not reality, just clippings. We plastered our walls with them to show us a false reality. We placed them there to give us false testimony. Now that we recognize that, we can refuse to accept their testimony. If they tell us that reality is separation and attack, that the fundamental law of the universe is “eat or be eaten,” we can calmly refuse to believe it. We can learn a higher law. And to the extent we have already internalized the belief in separation and attack, we can forgive ourselves. We are not sinners. We are just insane; we are just mentally ill. We don’t deserve the death penalty. We just deserve help.