One of the most terrifying two hours of my life was in 1986 when I delivered a paper to the Aberdeenshire Theological Club (the oldest such club in Scotland!). The paper was on Julian of Norwich, her view of Divine Love and human sin and whether in her theology these are adequately reconciled. The subject matter is intimidating enough, but sitting in the audience was Professor Donald MacKinnon. He was a large man - broad, tall, a craggy alp with a face that could be just as forbidding as any such North Face. He was also a large presence who when he laughed his shoulders resembled a kind of mirthful earthquake, and I found him to be a warm appreciative listener mainly, except when he gruffed out a 'yes' which was reassuring, or a harrumph which was worrying. The photo of a younger Mackinnon does no justice to the venerable, restless polymath ambling through Old Aberdeen with his brown leather message bag books and papers protruding, and stuffed with who knows what metaphysical speculations, and happy to stop and engage in conversation which could be gossip or gospel, metaphysics or meal times, German Romanticism or the state of the Harris Tweed industry.
I made quite a bit about Julians doctrine of sin appearing reductionist, and at times sitting light to the seriousness of sin as a radical negation of being, a pervasive and invasive power of evil that insinuates itself into the very structures of created being, so that only a redemption which reached into such profound depths of reality (the Cross of Christ as the Love of God ) could adequately negate that negation. The loud gravelly 'Yes', exploding into the sedate company, and the forward thrust of a leonine head were enough to keep me going forward with my paper, while hoping there would be nothing ahead that might provoke an equally strong 'No!'
At the end there were questions, observations, critique, appreciation and a feeling that the paper had, however marginally, passed. Then Professor Mackinnon came up, said kind things and said he would send me a book. He didn't - I think he meant he would send me a suggested book which he did. I bought it in the days before amazon the quick book getter existed. It was The Word of Reconciliation by H H Farmer,(London: Nisbet, 1966) a far too easily overlooked theologian whose philosophical theology remains worth our time and attention. I'll come back to HH Farmer. But in his book are these words, which capture in such lucid theological writing, the psychology and ontology of sin:
A great many people's concern about their sinful shortcomings springs in large measure from a disguised and subtle egotism and pride. They are, perhaps, particularly if they have had a Christian upbringing and take their Christian profession seriously, formed an image of themselves as displaying an exalted Christian character, and when they find, as they inevitably do, that they persistently fall short of this 'ego-ideal', they are cast down and depressed and harassed with guilt feelings. This they mistake for a true and deep repentance but it may be little more than a feeling of injured pride and self-esteem.
On the lips of the deeply penitent religious man therefore, the cry against thee, thee only, have I sinned', might almost seem to be an exactly and literally true statement. Some such awareness as this, however expressed, or perhaps not expressed or even expressible in terms at all, but only felt, some sense that because of one's sin the very foundation of one's being and life has been shaken (for what is God if not the very foundation of one's being and life?0, some consciousness that sin holds one suspended not over the shallows of time but over the abyss of eternity, the abyss of God, is an element in sincere and true penitence towards God; it is in fact this consciousness which in part constitutes it towards God.
Pages 65 and 67