From "The Age" - an Australian Newspaper. My good friend the Revd. Dr. Andrew McGowan is quoted.
The resurrection of sin
March 21, 2008
Is there still a place for sin in modern society? The language has all but disappeared, but the concept may awaken a greater sense of moral responsibility.
The terrible fire of hell will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals … The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.— James Joyce's 1916 novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
THIS is the sort of language that traumatised generations. Such graphic injunctions about sin and its consequences (this was the most famous description of hell since Dante's Inferno) terrified countless young men and women, particularly those who were Catholic. Considerable determination, ingenuity and often cruelty went into "protecting" people from their base desires. But such efforts, however well-meaning, made the language of sin itself sinful.
Paul Ormonde remembers his oldest son preparing for his first confession in 1963. Sister Francesca, said the boy, had told him he had to confess his mortal sins first.
"I was so angry I went up to see her and said, 'My son is six. He's not capable of a sin that would endanger his soul.' She said, 'Oh, Mr Ormonde, it's the teaching of the church.' "
It was part of Ormonde's journey out of the church — he calls himself a "secular Catholic" now and no longer believes the doctrine of redemption, that God sent his son, Jesus, to redeem humanity from the ancient calamity of original sin.
That picture of a vengeful God excoriating humanity for the tiniest transgressions has largely disappeared; love is once again seen as a more powerful persuader than fear. But something curious has happened to sin: in a matter of decades it has dropped almost entirely from Western consciousness. Today such language seems quaint, risible and barely understood. Surely this is a good thing? Well, yes … and no. Sin, after all, is the only doctrine of the ancient church that is empirically verifiable. And its passing has left another vital concept languishing, that of moral responsibility.
It is an issue that goes beyond religion. Sin was part of the vernacular among believers and non-believers 50 years ago; today it is not really used by either. Moral agency, however, is part of being human, affecting everyone equally.
Easter is when Christians are particularly confronted with the idea of sin because it is "the reason for the season": the New Testament teaches that Jesus was nailed to the cross to reconcile, redeem, restore and ransom humanity.
But psychiatrist Louise Newman thinks everyone, religious or not, should reflect on questions of morals and values.
"Sin" has been disappearing for a while. American psychiatrist Karl Menninger (a non-believer) wrote in 1973 in Whatever Happened to Sin? that the word was rarely heard. "Does that mean that no sin is involved in all our troubles — sin with an 'I' in the middle? Is no one any longer guilty of anything? Guilty perhaps of a sin that could be repented and repaired or atoned for? Is it only that someone may be stupid or sick or criminal — or asleep? Wrong things are being done, we know; tares are being sown in the wheatfield at night. But is no one responsible, no one answerable for these acts?"
This trend has accelerated. Look at celebrities who get into trouble and have to apologise. Perish the thought that they were callous, brutal, treacherous, selfish, insensitive, self-indulgent or greedy — they "made a mistake". It is a phrase emptied of moral content by comparison with the alternatives. A mistake is when you take the wrong turn while driving; keeping on until you have overrun Poland is not a "mistake". Nor is perjury or embezzlement or other crimes perpetrators don't see as a problem until they get caught.
For many theologians, guilt — the psychological effect of sin (or moral failure) — is a very useful symptom that acts like pain in the physical realm to warn that there's a problem. To remove the symptom but ignore the cause can leave a person worse off than before.
No one is guilty any more, they are all victims. Modern psychology has reached the paradoxical conclusion that society can be collectively guilty (as with the recent stolen generations apology), even though it is comprised of individuals who are all innocent.
So has the pendulum swung too far? Is sin — defined by the Concise Oxford as the breaking of a divine or moral law, especially by a conscious act — still a useful concept? Anglican theologian Andrew McGowan thinks so.
The daily newspaper, he says, shows that sin is an objective reality. "It's like Mark Twain's quote about infant baptism: 'Do I believe in it? Heck, I've seen it!' At the risk of sounding glib, sin is a serious business. I'm on the side of those who think it needs more honesty than being swept under the carpet."
McGowan, warden of Melbourne's Trinity College, says sin is the difference between the best we can conceive of for ourselves and what we actually have. It's a theological way of thinking about the state of the world. He acknowledges that the language of sin has been used to control and disempower people, to lead them to desperation rather than hope. But even so, "it's important to admit how things are because it's impossible to fix a problem that we deny exists".
Yet outside the church, and often within, the problems of sin have been replaced by problems of self-esteem. This interpretation began with Freud, who regarded religion as a neurosis and guilt as an illusion that must be dispelled.
American theologian John MacArthur claims the very idea of guilt is considered medieval, obsolete, unproductive. Self-esteem is what counts, and that doesn't leave room for guilt.
In The Vanishing Conscience, MacArthur writes: "If no one is supposed to feel guilty, how could anyone be a sinner? Modern culture has the answer: people are victims. Victims are not responsible for what they do; they are casualties of what happens to them. It has radically changed the way our society looks at human behaviour."
Every human failing, therefore, becomes a disease, a kind of disorder that is not our fault. There is always somebody else to blame.
MacArthur quotes American author Charles Sykes: "Unfortunately, that is a formula for social gridlock: the irresistible search for someone or something to blame colliding with the unmovable unwillingness to accept responsibility."
MacArthur says the sin-as-disease model has created a multibillion-dollar counselling industry in which therapists sometimes provide extensive treatment for years, or even life. Recovery is neither expected, nor in their interests, he says.
The two psychiatrists The Age spoke to — one Christian, one not — had some sympathy for the concept of sin, though neither employed it with patients.
"In terms of thinking about human capacities to do bad things, even cruel and harmful things, it's an important notion," says Louise Newman, professor of psychology at the University of Newcastle.
"Just look at current concerns about adolescent behaviour, for example, or the capacity of humans to commit genocide or torture. These are moral arguments about the human condition."
Newman, who is not a believer, says psychiatry tries to look behind the behaviour to find causes, and deals in concepts such as "damage" rather than sin. For some patients, a particular version of Catholicism has left scars, while many people cannot relate to the range of connotations "sin" carries, yet the concept must be confronted, she says.
"People I see who have experienced torture or witnessed massacres, for example in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, have had to confront something about the human condition most of us prefer not to think about. It could be our neighbour who commits these atrocities, and if it could be our neighbour it could be us. I treat some survivors of torture who, now they have seen these atrocities and know what human beings are capable of, are terrified they might be capable as well. I wouldn't use the word sin or evil, but they exist."
Newman agrees that many people have a problem with moral responsibility. "It's the John Howard attitude to moral questions: never apologise, never admit. It seems to me people are looking for clear moral guidance. The recent Rudd apology struck a chord because we'd been living in a moral vacuum. Most of the country had an emotional response to the apology — not all liked it, but they were engaged in a moral debate."
Child psychiatrist Michael Dudley says modern psychology and psychiatry are highly suspicious of religion and have tried to evacuate the moral domain.
"We're in the heyday of neurobiological science, and psychological things have become fairly mechanised," says Dudley, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of NSW and a member of the Uniting Church.
"The question of moral responsibility hasn't been particularly processed by people in my profession. It's probably come in the back door through ethical breaches. Psychologists now have to think about ethics as part of their remit, but whether that translates beyond the individual relationship into an understanding of society or of the spiritual dimension is another matter."
He thinks there is both individual sin and collective sin, a sense in which people can "go over to the dark side".
Dudley worries that psychiatrists who ignore questions of religion or values can miss the main game.
"My faith probably makes me aware that this is a relevant dimension for people in their lives. I always cover questions of meaning and value for people. It would be on my radar to ask about their fundamental beliefs — if they are religious, how do they express it, does it help them cope with life in general and the predicament they are in now?
"It's under-scrutinised. The literature indicates very clearly the beneficial effects of a spiritual belief system for relational stability, for preventing suicide and self-harm, for health. I'm a believer, but it's not a Medicare benefits item, it's not something we can prescribe."
One of the reasons why the concept of sin lost traction was its link with the difficult doctrine of original sin. Few theologians today would accept Augustine's explanation that it was conveyed from the parents via sexual intercourse.
Andrew McGowan says what's original about sin is its universality. "It's an insipid and inadequate view of humans to think we are all blank books and fine until someone comes along and stuffs things up for us. Selfishness and sin are almost synonymous."
Theologian Peter Adam says he finds non-Christians surprisingly open to the idea of original sin. "They recognise that something is wrong in society, and it's hard to work out how we caused so much damage. Humans did it, not the dolphins, not the ants. I find non-Christians intrigued by a metaphysical explanation for what's wrong."
Adam, principal of Ridley College, says original sin doesn't mean people are bad; they are fallible. "One of the most striking effects of sin is its ability to blind us to its presence — we can all see that in other people but it's much harder in ourselves. We focus too much on whether we have done wrong, and ignore the good things we should have done, and have not done, because of ignorance, nervousness, or lack of vision as to how we help and love others."
Melbourne Jesuit theologian Bill Uren says this was the point of the Vatican statement on social sins last week, that things such as polluting, genetic engineering and obscene wealth were as bad as pride, lust, anger and the rest.
"Sin is the things we fail to do, we don't live up to our responsibilities. Certainly theft, murder, rape, things people do are sinful and harm one another but — and this was the Apostolic Penitentiary's point — it's the more subtle ones where we fail through our self-centredness."
If people are to reclaim greater moral responsibility, the concept of sin may be central, even if the word itself now carries too much baggage. Non-Christians who deride original sin can still accept that humans are all frail, fallible, occasionally weak-willed, inclined to be selfish, and that there is often a gap between conscience and action.
And, for Christians at least, the idea of sin leads to the idea of hope. Easter is about sin, but even more it's about hope.
"It's about God's redeeming love, that no matter how far away we seem there is a loving God who has reached out," Uren says.
The wages of sin doesn't have to be death. "It's a revolutionary message. It means that in the vicissitudes of life that sin and failure aren't the end."
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.