We are two weeks into the liturgical season of Lent as you read this column. Since Ash Wednesday, I’ve been trying to understand why we never hear the term sin used any more in our public conversations about Tiger Woods, the inability of Congress to rise above partisan bickering, the Rod Blagojevich spectacle, the guy in the condo building above your unit who plays his TV too loud or why we fight with the very people we say we love.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Whatever Became of Sin? by Karl Menninger – a psychiatrist! – became a best seller in 1973. His argument, in part, was that American society no longer bought the concept and that sin was not getting much traction in our attempts to diagnose what were the causes of the evils afflicting us.
In place of sin – as an explanatory concept for why our lives were not what we hoped they would be – we looked to drugs, lack of education, one’s living environment, abusive parenting, the size of government (too big or not big enough), racism, sexism, potty training, low self-worth, the lack of term limits, Communism, poverty, male chauvinism, feminism, single parents, the demise of family values, bankers, lawyers, the military-industrial complex and poly-unsaturated fats.
Hardly anyone will argue that the concept of sin has gone out of style and is now politically incorrect. Some folk hang on to it tightly even as they feel increasingly discounted and marginalized in the public square.
Others say “good riddance” to a concept that is out of date and is neither supported by the social sciences nor plausible to the 21st century mind. Bill Long, in a 2005 essay posted on the Internet, contended that the idea of sin has even lost favor with many clergy. He wrote, “Sin is no longer a topic that is preached on or taught. It doesn’t attract members to congregations and it doesn’t keep them there.”
I agree with Long’s analysis, and I think its absence in public debate weakens our ability to both understand what the cause of our malaise is and to figure out what to do about it.
First, let’s define terms. David Kelsey, a theologian at Yale Divinity School, uses concepts from existentialism when he says that sin is “a condition of human subjects in which they are estranged from themselves, others, and God.”
Paul Sponheim, in a volume I have in my bookcase entitled Christian Dogmatics, says, “Sin arises from the total person rooted in and related to that which is beyond the person … and issues in distortion in all the person’s relationships.”
I’m going to call it that ornery, curved-in-on-ourselves, defiant thing in us that prevents us from loving ourselves and the people around us. It has nothing to do with how much you know, where you live or the size of your bank account. It’s a matter of the heart and the will, and I simply don’t buy the contention that being self-centered is loving yourself. Self-centeredness always diminishes people.
And, for the sake of my argument, I don’t think you have to bring God into the picture. That something, according to how I observe life, is there whether you are spiritually oriented or not.
Take Tiger Woods for example. How do you explain his numerous infidelities – poverty, low self-image, lack of education, obesity, an unattractive wife?
Or take ourselves, as another example. How many of us are tempted to fall into the delusional bridge to nowhere that imagines, “Man, if I just had Tiger’s money or his success or his body or – especially if you’re a guy – his gorgeous wife; if I had just one of those, I’d be sitting on top of the world.” We know better. We really do. But this thing in us keeps pushing us to look for love in all the wrong places.
In my next column, which will appear here in three weeks, I’ll try to lay out some of the implications of restoring sin to our repertoire of diagnostic concepts.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.