Hello, and Is Sin No Longer A Useful Concept?

by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Hello to all who read this regularly – or newcomers.  I’m happy to introduce myself in this new capacity as Blog Coordinator.  Strange to feel nervous but I do.  Joy created this opening for us to read and to write and she will always be the Mistress of the Bigger Circle.  I can’t be Joy but I will just charge ahead and count on you to help keep this blog as readable and provocative as it’s been.  There is no one better than Joy to turn attention and talents to creating some fresh thinking on maintaining and creating good social housing so thank goodness she is moving in that direction.   I hope she will try out ideas on us.

Here go my words for the week.

Is Sin No Longer a Useful Concept?

Has the very notion of Sin become obsolete, having no relevance to current thinking?

Is it just out of fashion, being totally uncool but maybe still having serious meaning in some situations?

Is the term mainly useful as a tool for those who care to divide the righteous from the damned?

Has it lost credibility as a descriptor for wrongdoing actions because such a religious term, with all the baggage of history, doesn’t work in a world where the very notion of right and wrong seems up for grabs much of the time.  Shaming and judgment, common enough in our private attitudes, are generally rejected in public discourse.

Whatever the reasons, we don’t tend to talk about what constitutes a Sin and about who decides what is one.  Yet, it is still very much alive as a pillar of Christian thought, even while resting on the shelf, unused in everyday Christian circles.

So the question I put forward is what keeps us from tossing out the word?  What value does it retain in serious discussion among trusted friends (yourselves, dear readers) who remain committed to looking for what is authentic in living.  (Once we get past that formidable descriptor, should be a breeze.)

To the extent I am still Roman Catholic, I’m a Vatican Two type.  Not being to the Catholic Cradle born, my fundamental mind and soul were not as shaped by religious teachers as if I had been. But my mother, a solid Methodist, used it as the ultimate epithet to describe my late teen-age and early 20’s behaviour when I leapt on the Revolution bandwagon.  A bikini waist on a pair of turquoise latex trousers started us off.  I mention this to explain that I’m genuinely wondering about what’s been lost or gained between her era and mine regarding recognizing wrong risky actions.  She saw the low-slung pants as encouraging Sin .  She felt I was on the verge of committing it myself by wearing such a clear signal of interest in what men enjoyed looking at.  She also felt ashamed – I was shaming her as well as myself by being so bold.  Then and now I can say that I was just enjoying the sauciness of the whole thing.  Marilyn Munroe was my favourite female image.  But did my mother have any point worth considering?

So there’s the first argument for the usefulness of Sin as a social construct, defining what’s acceptable to decent people.  What is now acceptable, or decent for that matter, has a huge range and can anyone easily define its limits?  Further, by flaunting social convention, was I turning my back on what God would want?  My mother saw the two as the same (social acceptability and God’s will).  I claimed that nothing in the Bible prohibited turquoise bikini-cut trousers.  But in rejecting my mother’s traditional judgment about Sinful intentions was I crossing a bigger line between right and wrong than I understood?  I was choosing to navigate by my own moral compass and was I ready for that?

I was rushing headlong toward a life in which I wouldn’t choose my actions based on what my mum, teachers, or anybody else approved.  Increasingly, it was all to be worked out as I went, as WE went (my generation and I).  I didn’t know it but we had caught the Existential zietgiest and would live based more on immediacy and self-determination than by the norms we’d been taught.  Sin was part of the straight world of rigid codes and labels.  But those codes and labels provided safety if you were inside and supported by them.  Letting so much go was dangerous emotionally and socially.

The issue of God’s will and social norms needed to be separated out for anyone seeking authenticity (the existentialist Holy Grail) but rejecting both puts a person in a scary place.

Another reason for not entirely jettisoning Sin as a concept is that recognizing it in oneself is a portal to freedom from the burden of carrying it.   First is the recognizing and naming of the thing we’ve done that we know was wrong: mostly to do with hurting another, betrayal of trust, taking what wasn’t ours.  There are lots of wrong behaviours.  Carrying them unresolved can be heavy.

For some, therapy in all its forms holds real help.  For other still in the religious fold, the ritual of Confession is healing – the protocol for bringing oneself back into self-alignment.  A relaxation of sorts.  Once a wrong (a sin) is named and truly regretted (repented), then you can tell it (confess it) to someone who has access to the healing resolution (the sacrament of reconciliation).  For Anglicans and Roman Catholics, the priest has this capacity to forgive on behalf of God.  Here, the whole thing becomes inaccessible to many.  Perhaps to me.  The priest.  Hmmm.  Only men for  R..C.’s.  And why only the ordained? And, and… A penalty of some kind is required (the penance) and once accepted, one leaves, one’s sin forgiven (absolution).

Of course, confession requires the concept of Sin.  Without that, what are some of the other processes available, for dealing with one’s wrongdoing?

Please join in.



Filed under Rosemary's entries

5 responses to “Hello, and Is Sin No Longer A Useful Concept?

  1. Dan Cooperstock

    Fools jump in (meaning me, not you Rosemary!) …

    Well, I certainly have a problem with the idea of some other human granting you God’s forgiveness. Given that I don’t believe in any special concept of clergy (rather, “the priesthood of all believers”) that’s not surprising. But that’s not the main point of your post.

    I do think the word “sin” has been shanghied (sp?) by fundamentalists who consider a lot of things a sin that I certainly don’t. Which makes it difficult to use the word without being misunderstood.

    There is no question in my mind that there are some actions that are good, some bad, and a whole lot of shades of both, and in between. And we won’t even all agree on which is which. When we do bad things, unless we are a psycopath (who by definition doesn’t understand that what he/she does could be wrong) we generally know it. And hopefully we will resolve to do better, and if possible to right the wrong.

    There’s also being sinned against (done wrong to). If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being accused of something I didn’t do. Greatly offends my sense of justice and fairness. But I don’t know exactly where that fits into this discussion.

    Hope this helps a bit!

  2. Great topic, Rosemary.

    I’ve always found the concept of sin useful, because it helps me distinguish between the things I’m ashamed of because our culture frowns on them, and the things I am – or ought to be – ashamed of because they are wrong.

    The first time I thought of sin this way was on an early morning drive to Hamilton to deliver a speech. I had spent the whole night writing it, changing it, and then changing it back again. And as I drove I was silently condemning myself – “you’re an idiot” – and defending myself — “I never claimed to be a speech-writer” — until I suddenly asked myself, “is it a sin?” And the answer of course, is no.

    Failure isn’t a sin. Neither is being a bad speech-writer. Or slow on the uptake. Or for that matter, being fat, or incontinent., or pimply, or boring, or any of the thousand other things we are ashamed of, but aren’t sins.
    By comparison, the list of true sins – things Jesus actually condemns – is rather short. It excludes all the things you can’t help, or can’t change.

    And so now, whenever I’m hating myself, I try to stop myself by asking, “Have I sinned?” If I have, then there’s usually something I can do about it. And if it’s not a sin, maybe I can just give it a rest.

    As you say, Rosemary, a “portal to freedom.”

  3. I don’t know what to do with either the word or the concept of ‘sin’ outside the 2 commandments that really matter i.e. loving God and loving one’s neighbour. No doubt in some circles it may have to do with violating a dress code, or one drink too many, but there its use is too subjective and flimsy to be worth keeping.
    Where it does apply, now as much as ever, is in identifying the things we do which hurt, malign, oppress, disavow, ignore, or convey indifference to our neighbour. When we do those things, we sin. To sin against our neighbour is to sin against God. Conversely to love our neighbour covers a ‘multitude of sins’ which experientially speaking may be the greatest freedom we can know.

  4. Carolyn Whitney-Brown

    Hi Rosemary and all,

    I wasn’t brought up in a tradition that “went to confession,” and found it liberating when I discovered it in my 20’s. John’s comment about the two commandments that really matter is wonderfully straightforward.

    Increasingly, we are all trying to live in a good way on this earth, to live as one species among many in the ecosystems. I like this Mary Oliver poem — perhaps our understanding of sin is actually about perspective, about imagination, how we position ourselves in this world, what and how we choose to love.

    Wild Geese

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

    (from Dream Work © Mary Oliver)

  5. Kathryn McKinney

    I am researching how people view sin today and what the cross did to sin. I have been writing a new book called – The Way. This is an excerp from the introduction.
    “Jesus captured the consciousness of humanity. God’s love works intricately through my conscious mind to make me more aware of the unseen reality. Often, just like with the adulteress, God’s love cancels out condemnation from any worldly source. Because of the spiritual law under the New Covenant, one cannot hand out a sentence, nor can one accept a sentence for wrong doing, because of the eternal truth. The cross canceled the debt. The adulteress was brought to Christ for judgment and death. Jesus released her. He set her free.
    “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” -John the Baptist
    I believe that when John saw Jesus coming he declared the truth. The sins of the world have been taken away. They were gathered up and put upon one soul and that was Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus forgave the adulteress and brought recognition to her accuser’s sins. He included them because they also were forgiven. The definition of the word away is this; “Out of existence or notice: So as to remove, separate, or eliminate: not present.”
    And just so we are clear as to what exactly is no longer in existence or noticed, what has been removed, separated and eliminated; SIN. This definition is as follows: A transgression of a religious or moral law, especially when deliberate: Deliberate disobedience to the known will of God: A condition of estrangement from God resulting from such disobedience.
    Something regarded as being shameful, deplorable, or utterly wrong. Transgression of God’s known will or any principle or law regarded as embodying this. The condition of estrangement from God arising from such transgression See also actual sin -a sin committed of your own free will. Mortal sin-A sin, such as murder or blasphemy, that is so heinous it deprives the soul of sanctifying grace and causes damnation if unpardoned at the time of death. Original sin- the condition of sin that marks all humans as a result of Adam’s first act of disobedience. Venial sin- An offense that is judged to be minor or committed without deliberate intent and thus does not estrange the soul from the grace of God.”
    The most powerful statement Christ ever stated was; “Do not fear.” This was not a request from Him it was a call to refrain from a negative mindset. Christ has given us the opportunity to live our lives free of condemnation, free of a death sentence and free of sin. It no longer is counted against us. We are forgiven. It’s already been done. This way is an actual leading of the Spirit upon a spiritual path that actually exists within a dimension that is strictly accessible only by faith. What court in the land would take the word that when someone commits a crime they are free? They were forgiven before it ever happened. The law of love says it is true.”

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