Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Confession and Penance

Human beings have probably been aware of their imperfections since the dawn of history. We have always, it seems, sought to remedy the ways in which we fall short from what we think we should be.

Stone carvings from the Eastern and Aztec civilisations indicate that worshippers pleaded with the gods - though about what we can't be certain. Certainly our earliest written records from ancient Egypt confirm that by around 1250 BCE an elaborate system of confession had arisen.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, records how Nu, Keeper of the Seal, approaches the Lord Maati who feeds upon the blood of sinners "... on the day when the consciences of men are reckoned up in the presence of the god Un-Nefer". Nu comes to the Lord Maati with a negative confession - that is, he brings a list of things he has not done. He has not made any man weep, he has not committed murder, he has not stopped water when it should flow - and so on through 38 items.

All ancient religions no doubt had similar concerns with imperfection and took measures to remedy them through sacrifices and offerings to the gods. The Hebrews were no exception. Their idea of sin as akin to being unclean was a common one, still followed by some religious people today. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, Numbers 19.1-20 gives detailed instructions for clearing guilt before God.

By the time of Jesus these elaborate measures had been simplified a good deal. The ultra-strict Essenes of Dead Sea Scrolls fame had elaborate rules about ritual defilement and cleansing. They built a complicated system to channel scarce water to twelve large baths so that they could stay pure in God's eyes. But in Palestine ordinary people were generally more relaxed about ritual defilement.

Some Christians may find themselves confused about confession and penance when they turn to the New Testament.

Jesus rejected the Hebrew concept of ritual contamination as something which comes between us and God. This is not to say that he rejected the idea that we can and do sin - though even then he pays little attention to the matter except in the context of forgiveness. This Jesus is the man of history, derived from those parts of the gospels that we can take as "what really happened" with a degree of certainty [1].

Despite the generously forgiving stance of Jesus, early Christians quickly instituted the practice of restricting recalcitrants from full participation in the community. Only when they mended their ways were they allowed back. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5.1-13 tells the community not to associate with immoral people and continues:

Don't even sit down to eat with such a person ... As the scripture says, "Remove the evil man from your group".

Keeping in mind that the gospels were written decades later than the letters of Paul, it's important to recognise a quite dramatic change which took place in the first century after the death of Jesus. As the new Christian communities developed, they came first under pressure from the Jewish religious authorities to conform. Then within another short while they had come to the attention of the Roman authorities as a troublesome group who would not accept the emperor as supreme. Persecution was, with hindsight, inevitable.

The Greek word for "confess" is used in the New Testament in two senses. One is to publicly acknowledge Jesus as supreme ("Lord"); the other is to admit a wrongdoing against God's laws. The first of these two uses came to be primary as Christians were put under duress by religious and secular authorities to deny their faith. 

Thus the First Letter of John introduced the idea of confession as a defence against heresy and false knowledge

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. But if we confess our sins to God, he will keep his promise and do what is right: he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.

As Paul Johnson remarks,

Hitherto, the confession produced a decision for or against faith ... We see here the rise of dogma. [2]

In other words, confessing became linked to what in the early Church was the greatest sin of all - apostasy, the denial under persecution that Jesus was the only true Emperor (Lord). Apostates had to go through a rigorous confession if they wanted to be received back into the Church. In some cases, they might even be re-baptised to ensure that their ultimate sin had been erased.

Although early Church historians portrayed apostates as the few, it's much more likely that they were the majority by far. William Frend writes how around the year 250, as a result of a drive by Roman authorities to insist on public sacrifice to declare loyalty to the Emperor,

... there were thousands who thought nothing of performing sacrifice in the temple and presenting themselves for Eucharist the next Sunday. No one disobeyed an imperial edict lightly ... the great majority of Christians played safe and sacrificed. [3]

As is the way with institutions, initially ill-defined teaching about confession in the Church gradually solidified into a legal code. Pope Innocent III at the Lateran Council of 1216 settled argument about the validity of private confession to a priest by making it compulsory for all adult Christians. It became a way of controlling people, says Colin Morris:

... we must not think of confession as providing counselling of an elevated kind but rather as an organ of social control which helped to ensure that the laity performed the duties appropriate to their station. [4]

What better way to sniff out and snuff out incipient heresy than to make it a deadly sin to question or contradict official Church dogma - and at the same time to force a confession under pain of eternal damnation?

It enabled the Church to be far more flexible in its tactics, and to adapt them to particular problems, places and men. And whereas [the older practice of] public confession was a rude form of democracy, the carefully selected confessor underpinned the hierarchy of [medieval] society. [2]

Perhaps fortuitously, confession and resulting acts of penance turned out to be financially beneficial to the Church. Church officials in medieval times promoted ecclesiastical foundations as a way of atoning for sin. This explains why so many churches, cathedrals and monasteries were founded by evil men.

In short, a mechanical process had been substituted for the more genuine practice of normal confession and penance. Confession became a duty legislated from above, rather than a sign of genuine contrition. Such things may begin with the elite. But they soon penetrate lower socials levels. By the 14th century indulgences in the form of time-off from hell and purgatory were being freely granted in return for cash.

In the first six months of 1344, [Pope] Clement IV granted [death-bed indulgences] to two hundred people in England alone; it cost them less than ten shillings each. The Pope justified this by saying: "A pontiff should make his subjects happy". [2]

Mass-marketing tends to reduce both price and value of a commodity. Indulgences were no exception. 

With abuse (as we now perceive it) usually comes correction. Martin Luther provided public impetus to a strong movement which had already surfaced in the European Church of the 16th century against the power which confession and penance gave the Roman authorities. In his The Babylonian Captivity, he came out against penance as a sacrament. It is, he wrote, merely a "promise" rather than a "sign" or sacrament of something done by God.

The Reformation was accompanied by a different sort of confession - a restatement of doctrinal fundamentals such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Westminster Confession of 1643. If one side of a dispute states its case, the other side in drawn to do the same. Thus the Roman Catholic Church also formulated its own confessional statements  through the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Confession as penance quickly disappeared from most Protestant churches, retaining a tiny foothold mostly in Anglo-Catholic congregations of the Anglican Church.

Apart from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, confession appears on the surface to have disappeared from modern secular society. In the former church a long-term reform of teaching culminated in 1973 with revision which stressed confession primarily as a pastoral tool. If a person is burdened by guilt, he or she may know that they are certainly relieved of it by confessing to a priest.

However, a passage from William James in 1907 should alert us to the possibility that confession may have merely migrated elsewhere out of the Church. His comments are intended "psychologically, not historically":

 It is part of a general system of purgation and cleansing ... For him who confesses, shams are over and realities have begun; he has exteriorized his rottenness ... he at least no longer smears it over with a hypocritical show of virtue.

Once Sigmund Freud had popularised digging into the dark recesses of the primal Id, the stage was set for the development of the secular confession. Instead of going to the priest to be shriven in God's eyes, the penitent now goes to the psychologist to be delivered of the hidden burden of deep-seated complexes.

In the West the practice of confession in private in the presence of a priest has declined to almost nothing - though many millions still avail themselves of the sacrament of confession in the newer churches in Asia, Africa and South America. But, of course, usage validates nothing. Confession is not efficacious or good theology just because many do it and it is pronounced essential by ecclesiastical hierarchies, no matter how venerable.

As a means by which a feeling guilt can be assuaged, confession in the sense of unburdening oneself to another person nevertheless seems to have been validated by experience over millennia. It's unlikely ever to disappear as long as there are those whose guilt weighs them down intolerably.

But the idea that penance is somehow eternally of value to God is, I suspect, bound to lose ground in an increasingly secular world. After all, it is in its own small way but a kind of sacrifice made on earth to appease God in heaven. 

Reformation of a life (insofar as that is possible given genetic background and the bonds of social conditioning) is more likely than not to retain a place in the human economy. It is, after all is said and done, what is meant by metanoia or repentance - a fundamental part of the process of placing Jesus of Nazareth at the centre of one's life.
[1] A vast amount has been written on the subject of the historical Jesus. 
      One of the best sources of a minimalist Jesus is The Five Gospels 
      (Polebridge Press, 1993)
[2] A History of Christianity, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976
[3] The Rise of Christianity, DLT 1984
[4] Christian Civilization in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity,
      OUP, 1990

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