What exactly is sin? It's an age-old question. Part of the problem is classification: What some fervently regard as sinful, others regard, equally fervently, as righteous. Consider the fervor that has been expended on, oh, I dunno: same-sex marriage; Communism; polygamy; suicide bombing; divorce; sharing Communion with the unbaptized; even the 1979 Prayer Book.
But fervor doesn't answer the question: What exactly is sin? Those learned in theology and theodicy will doubtless see the following thoughts as sophomoric, but here goes anyway.
It seems reasonable to conjecture that sin might be a label for our cosmic inadequacy, our inability to truly grasp what ought to be, and what we need to do to get there. (In a sense, this is a variation on the argument that sin is simply ignorance.)
Limitations: of Knowledge and of "Mental Circuitry"
Let's start with some premises. I claim that the following premises are well-enough established that they need no proof here:
- The universe is complex. We don't know everything about it, not even close. The more we learn, the more we realize there still is for us to learn. What we think we know is usually quite serviceable, but experience teaches that what we think we know might later turn out to be incomplete, or even flat-out wrong.
- Each of us is limited, not just in our knowledge, but in the adequacy of the "mental circuitry" with which we acquire, share, process, and act on our knowledge.
Think about how these facts affect what every one of us does all the time.
• At virtually every waking moment, we form mental models, conceiving that the relevant portion of the universe in fact exists in a certain state. These mental models incorporate information received from our senses, from others, from our (tricky) memories, and processed by our mental circuitry.
• We desire. That is to say, we imagine ways in which the world could be different. We conclude that we would be more pleased by that state of the universe — by what could be — than by what is.
• We conceive actions (or inactions) that, we conjecture, will nudge the universe in the direction of "better," or at least keep it from getting "worse."
• After we act, or decide not to, we often see, hear, feel the results. We receive feedback, real-world evidence from the universe. (I claim that evidence is one of God's supreme gifts to us.)
• From that feedback, we learn: To one extent or another, and with varying degrees of success, we update our mental models and adapt our future behavior.
We repeat these steps countless times in a lifetime. By doing so, humans (and animals) have driven much of the increase in the orderliness, the progress, of the universe.
But we don't always get the steps right. For various reasons, sometimes we screw up. We might not get all the information we need about the existing state of the universe. We might misjudge what to do or not do.
Or, at any given moment, we might simply not "get it" about what would constitute a "better" state of the universe (or a "worse" one). That, I strongly suspect, is where sinful behavior comes from.
Why Do We Fail to "Get It"?
I love to eat. Like many people, once in awhile I succumb to (a mild form of) the sin of gluttony.
Intellectually, of course, I have no desire to overeat. When I think about it, I know I want to be lean and buff. I know that keeping my weight down likely will extend my life span and make me more fit for God's work, for a longer period. Those are things I definitely do desire. Most of the time, I have no problem eating sensibly.
But every now and then, the eat-eat-eat* signal temporarily suppresses all others. Some part of my brain tells me that, at that particular instant, the world would be so much better if I simply had another helping. At that instant, the siren song of the second serving suppresses all other signals.
(* Old joke: What's a nine-letter [Italian / Croatian / insert your ancestral language] word for grandmother? Eat-eat-eat.)
Why do I do this? Rational-choice theorists might say that when I overeat, I'm unconsciously gambling that heart attacks happen to other people, not to me. But economists are starting to realize that people don't always behave rationally.
It seems to me that, at that instant, I'm simply not grasping — literally, I'm not holding in my mind — the possible health consequences of overeating. Neither am I holding in my mind how overeating abuses an engine that rightly belongs to God and should be maintained for his service.
At that particular instant, I just don't "get it." The eat-eat-eat signal temporarily dominates my mental circuitry, causing me to act in a particular way. (Footnote: Scientists think the eat-eat-eat signal may be linked to hormone levels, specifically that of leptin.)
We don't really understand why this happens. We know only a few, rudimentary, emprirical things about what causes people to hold particular visions of "better" (or "worse") in their mental circuitry at any given time. Maslow's hierarchy of needs describes, but it doesn't explain.
I hope this example doesn't trivialize sin. That's not my intent. But I suspect that much of what we call sin arises from similar phenomena, just on a larger scale.
Consider another example. A mugger desires money, NOW. His victim refuses to hand over her purse. He shoots her dead, takes her purse, and leaves.
Beforehand, the mugger was probably aware that murderers are punished severely. Later, perhaps years later, he might be horrified by his crime.
But it wouldn't surprise me if at that instant, he grasped none of those things. For whatever reasons — reasons we probably don't even begin to understand — at that instant, in that mugger's brain, the I-want-money signal (or whatever combination of signals it actually is) trumped all others.
Let me be clear about what I'm not saying. By no means do I suggest that we should excuse evil-doers' actions just because they don't "get it." It's in society's interest to make sure that evil incurs consequences, if only pour encourager les autres.
Nor am I suggesting that people don't have "free will." I suspect we do to at least some extent. It's a safe bet, as long as we don't push it too far.
But we need to be realistic. As followers of Jesus, we claim we want to change hearts and minds for God. Presumably, therefore, we also want to understand as much as we can about (i) how people come to desire what they do and (ii) how they come to act on those desires.
We've got a lot of work to do on that score. Traditional concepts of "sin" just don't seem especially helpful. It's time to rethink.