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.
You seem to be hung up on the sin = wrongful act definition. This really causes no end of problems.
Martin Luther defined sin as "seperation from God". It becomes clear that we sin when we lose the place of God in our lives. Sin manifests itself in destructive acts, but the acts are the symptom, not the cause. The traditonal Western Christian concentration on the act is really a barrier to fully understanding sin.
Sin is not failing to conform to some external yardstick. It is failing to live in relationship with God.
It follows, therefore, that all of our lives are filled with sin. We are in desperate need
of God's grace to allow us to overcome our own shortcomings.
Which is why the recent emphasis on certain "sexual sins" is so far beyond the point it isn;t funny. A certain faction complains that a certain man can't be a bishop because he has a "sinful relationship". The irony is that the accusers themselves are also in sinful relationships. We're *all* in sinful relationships. If that man can't be a bishop, than no one can.
Posted by: ruidh | January 17, 2006 at 10:36 PM
"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. "
Yes. Well, that's sin: we cannot hold in our minds the desire to avoid the abuses we commit. Paul said it clearly: "I do what I hate, and I do not do what I wish to do."
This is the point. It doesn't necessarily mean that we are evil, or our motives are cruel or in some other way consciously wrong. It just means we can't be who we ought to be. It means we will always fail to live up to our own wishes to serve God. We cannot do it.
These are the minor sins, of course. But human history is full of large sins also: slavery, war, imperialism, genocide, simple neglect of duty and of the widow and orphan. I agree that there are reasons for these things, likely biological or genetic in origin. That's the point. That's sin.
Posted by: bls | January 18, 2006 at 12:31 AM
Welcome, ruidh. My draft response to your comment has grown so much that I'm cleaning it up and will be posting it as a separate essay. Thanks for stopping by.
Posted by: D. C. | January 18, 2006 at 11:29 AM
bls, I agree completely that committing sinful acts doesn't necessarily mean we're evil. But I don't think I can follow you in the next step of your argument: I don't think we can state categorically that "we will always fail to live up to our own wishes to serve God," nor that "[w]e cannot do it."
Your essay, by the way, triggered my own; I need to link to it, because it's good reading.
Posted by: D. C. | January 18, 2006 at 11:33 AM
The Lutheran in my blood reminds me of The second article of the Augsburg Confession on Origianl Sin: "Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost."
In a nutshell, then, what Melanchthon here and Luther himself in the Catechisms argue is that sin--any and all sin--is, at root, our inability to act rightly out of our love, fear, and trust in God. This is sin. Even if we do the right thing it doesn't get us any closer to God because we're doing it from twisted motives (fear of punishment, spiritual self-seeking, whatever). Only the Holy Spirit can aid us in that "love, fear, and trust of God" that we lack.
I think there's a distinction between human limitation and sin. I wrote about it a bit a while back here and here...
Posted by: Derek | January 18, 2006 at 12:58 PM
Perhaps, but it sounds pretty ipse dixit to me. Here's where I deploy my favorite theological question: How exactly does one know that, and what basis do we have for concluding that it's correct?
Posted by: D. C. | January 18, 2006 at 05:30 PM
Well, D.C.: I'm an empiricist. I look at the world, and at the history of humankind, and it seems utterly clear to me that human beings are sinful and cannot escape this condition, no matter how hard we try.
Religious movements begun with the purpose of furthering holiness end with Children's Crusades. Utopian experiments most often end in bloodshed - or simply end, defeated. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder. Mohandas Gandhi apparently treated his children with disdain. And that's not even getting into "evil" - or the "banality of evil."
Every day people do things they have to apologize for. This is why we say Confession at the Eucharist - so that we can receive absolution and move on (to the next error).
As I said at Derek's, I don't really see the difference between what I'm talking about and what you are; to me, it seems we're saying the same things and using different names. No?
Posted by: bls | January 18, 2006 at 06:01 PM
(I will have to re-read Derek's posts to see what he means by distinguishing between human limitation and sin. From here, and before reading, I guess can see his point - but only if we're not including "sins unknown." Surely we err on account of human limitation, too, even if not purposefully?)
Posted by: bls | January 18, 2006 at 06:05 PM
BLS, I agree that we're not likely ever to escape our condition, namely that to one extent or another we all f*** up.
I can't go as far as you in thinking that doing the right thing doesn't get us closer to God. True, doing the right thing probably can't get us all the way to complete union with God (if there even is such a thing). But I definitely think it can move us in that direction. (I would guess you might agree with this.)
Nor can I go as far as you in thinking that only the Holy Spirit can aid us. There are plenty of atheists who live exemplary lives and seem to be quite happy. (I would guess that some Buddhists fall into that category.) Must we categorically attribute their success to the Holy Spirit? I don't know enough to say. I don't think anyone else does either.
Yeah, I too think that you and I are pretty much on the same page on this subject. What we're doing seems more like editorial refinement than substantive disagreement.
Posted by: D. C. | January 18, 2006 at 07:22 PM
But I'd make a distinction between error and sin.
When we err because of our limitations, that's different from sin. If I have a seat in a nuclear power plant and sit on the self-destruct button then, well, I'm a dumbass, not a sinner... If I donate a million bucks to a worthy charity for the sake of feeling like a big-shot I'm a sinner... Intention and motivation are the keys as far as I can tell. And that's precisely what makes it so difficult.
Posted by: Derek | January 19, 2006 at 11:44 AM
Derek, clearly there's a difference, but I haven't gotten my mind around just what that difference is.
BLS touched on an important point in quoting Paul: "I do what I hate, and I do not do what I wish to do." I wonder if it has something to do with our inner "dog brain" — I read recently (in Scientific American?) that the human brain is very much like a dog brain, but with an extra organ (whose name escapes me) "bolted on."
Posted by: D. C. | January 19, 2006 at 12:10 PM
I've read the above string on sin with interest. A few comments:
Could I ever do the BIG sin? Or are my sins minor & manageable? What's the "dif" between my minor suburban sins and the MEGA mass murder type of sins?
In our post enlightenment era, we don't really like the grubbiness and scummy unwashed flannel shirt feel of sin up close...especially if not done with "clean hands & clean linen". But it's there nonetheless.
Are we really as bad as historic Christianity says?
Short answer - In my personal experience. Yes. I won't bore you with examples.
Posted by: victorianezine | May 02, 2007 at 10:39 PM