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Involution, Evolution, and Necessary Sin

By Edward J. Parkinson

In my article "Immanence, Transcendence, and a Gnostic View of the Fall of Man in Eden," I contrasted traditional Christian and Gnostic views of sin. I there discussed "orthodox" views at somewhat more length than liberal, Gnostic views. Here I would like to discuss in more detail the Gnostic view of sin.

Bishop Pigott succinctly summarizes the matter by stating that "involution is the cause of sin and evolution is its cure" (42). Since involution must of necessity precede evolution, we cannot consider sin to be evil in an ultimate and unqualified sense , but only in a relative sense. Sin is always a detour on the journey back to God but very often a necessary detour because the only way to learn is to experiment with various choices and in the process of experimentation to make mistakes.

While certain particular sins might be avoided (and in many cases ought to be avoided), sin itself is necessary in the cosmic scheme of things. The Logos descends into virgin matter to create suitable companions for God. Our Lord has called us to be not only His "servants," but His friends. This requires that we leave behind the innocence of the Garden of Eden and "be as Gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). "Knowing" good and evil often requires experiencing the consequences of both. We do not necessarily "know" after memorizing a proposition or, even, sometimes, after sincerely intellectually assenting. We "know" only when experience has brought the truth home to the deepest levels of our psyches. This why Annie Besant in Dharma opines that it is sometimes better for a man to go ahead and commit a particular sin (even if it be a terrible sin) and experience the full bitterness of the punishment rather than to resist and keep "wanting" the indulgence from which he artificially restrains himself. If he follows the latter futile course, he will eventually sin anyway—probably even more grievously than he would have had he succumbed to temptation earlier—and, in addition to the detour occasioned by the particular sin, will have wasted much time in futilely gnashing his teeth "wanting" something which he does not yet "know" is wrong (68—70). "Thoughts against thoughts in groans grind," says the nineteenth-century Jesuit poet G.M. Hopkins in his imaginative vision of hell, "Spelt From Sybil's Leaves." Bishop Leadbeater states the case quite eloquently and succinctly: "It may be objected that in daily life we constantly see people doing what they must know to be wrong, but this is a misstatement of the case. They are doing what they have been told is wrong, which is quite a different matter. If a man really knows that an action is wrong, and that it will inevitably be followed by evil consequences, he is careful to avoid it. A man really knows that fire will burn him; therefore he does not put his hand into it" (84). Sin, therefore, is necessary for spiritual evolution.

In Dharma Annie Besant defines sin as any choice that hinders a creature's spiritual evolution. Because creatures have different natures and are evolving along different paths and are at different stages on those paths and because different creatures have different roles to play in the universe, morality must of necessity be relative (5—17). It would be a progressive step for an uneducated criminal to become a Pentecostalist; it would be a regressive step for most Gnostic Catholics. For a short-order cook at a fast food restaurant, accepting a job as a bank teller would be a step forward; it would, however, be a step backward for a board-certified ophthalmologist. It is good for a diabetic to take an insulin injection every day; it would be bad for a healthy person to do so. It is not wrong for Othila, one of my cats, to amuse herself by climbing trees and killing birds, but it would be wrong for me to seek recreation in such a manner. Thus, what is right or wrong for a particular creature is determined by that creature's dharma , which Annie Besant defines as the creature's nature at a given time and the requirements for its progression to the next stage on its evolutionary path—in her exact words, "the inner nature of a thing at any given stage of evolution, and the law of the next stage of its unfolding—the nature at the point it has reached in unfolding, and the law which brings about its next stage of unfolding. The nature itself marks out the point in evolution it has reached; then comes what it must do in order to evolve further along its road. Take these two thoughts together, and then you will understand why perfection must be reached by following one's own Dharma" (17).

Given the foregoing, it is easy to see the chief reason for the inevitability of sin: the metamorphosis of dharma . Avoidance of sin would require a constant precise knowledge of one's dharma and its ethical requirements, and such knowledge is not possible until a high level of development has been reached.

The most blatant dichotomy is the difference between involution and evolution. Before the individual can ascend to God, he must become an individual, and the requirements for individuation are different from those for spiritual progress later. Animals must be predatory in order to gain sufficient power to pass on from the animal kingdom. This acquisitiveness must continue in the early stages of human development so that a strong ego can be built. Indeed, such acquisitiveness is logically necessary for the very concept of sacrifice: one cannot offer sacrifice if one has nothing to offer.

At a certain point, however, this involutional dharma has begun to be transformed into a more evolutionary dharma . At that point what was good previously is now no longer suitable. If the involutionary patterns nevertheless continue, sin appears and must be painfully corrected by the Lords of Karma. Bishop Pigott summarizes these matters very well: "…the law which governs the evolution of matter is exactly opposite to the law which governs the evolution of spirit. The preservation and reproduction of material forms depends upon acquisition; the growth and evolution of spirit upon sacrifice. These are 'contrary one to the other,' but the each is right and very good in its own sphere. Material forms could not grow by the law which governs spiritual growth, nor can spirit evolve under the material law; if matter sacrifices, it suffers loss; and if spirit 'seeks it own,' it ceases to evolve. In that contradiction and opposition of laws of evolution, as between the material and the spiritual, is to be found the cause and the whole cause of the confusion known as sin. Spirits blinded by matter seek to evolve according to the law of material evolution. Such is sin" (40).

The necessity of sin in a universe inhabited by finite creatures was elucidated clearly by the non-Christian neo-Platonist Gnostic Plotinus in his Enneads . Sin is a consequence, Plotinus said, of the soul's attempt to imprint its spiritual essence upon matter and so elevate the material. "…this desire of the soul to create has unfortunate results. …as soon as it becomes joined to a body, it has the task of governing what is lower than itself, and …the soul becomes chained to the body" (Russell 293 ).

These ideas were clearly understood by St. Paul, although they are constantly misunderstood by clergy who purport to speak in Paul's name.

"I do not know sin but by the law," Paul said. "For I had not known concupiscence, if the law did not say: 'Thou shalt not covet'" (Romans: 7:7). The law appears to say, 'Thou shalt not covet" only when conversion takes place and the Prodigal Son decides to return to his Father.

Then, what was previously permissible comes under the judgment of the Lords of Karma: "…the commandment that was ordained to life, the same was found to be unto death to me" (Romans:7:10). This can be taken in two senses: the involutional commandment to "increase and multiply" is now deleterious—"death to me"—and the higher commandment is "death" because it contradicts the old natural behaviors and brings painful punishment—"death"—when one follows one's inclinations.

The "confusion" of which Bishop Pigott writes torments Paul: "For the good which I will I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. …I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me. For I am delighted with the law of god, according to the inward man: But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Romans: 7:19—24). The "inward man" is the spirit emanating from the Father in the Third Outpouring; it has not yet brought the lower vehicles and forces into harmony.

When we reflect thus on the nature of sin, we are led inexorably to an appreciation of the theosophical dictum that "sin is rather a matter for abandonment than for forgiveness" (Pigott 40). St. Paul—who, incongruously, is loved by angry fundamentalists—cautions us not to fear the vengeance of an anthropomorphically angry Deity and not to fall into self-hatred because of our sins: "If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? Is it Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us?" (Romans: 8: 31—34).

Let us strive as soon as possible to lay aside our sins, and let us face bravely whatever karmic consequences may await us for our previous ignorant malefactions, remembering all the while that "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans:8:28).


Besant, Annie. Dharma . Wheaton, Illinois. Quest Books, 1986. New edition of 1918 edition.

Leadbeater, C.W. The Inner Life . Wheaton, Illinois. Quest Books, 1978.

Pigott, F.W. Religion For Beginners . London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1928.

Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.