The Great Conversation:
Sin

By Gabriel Blanchard

Without saying that sin is a great idea, it is one of the great ideas.

Sin is one of the perennial topics of the Great Conversation; participants in the ongoing 100 Days of Dante project are currently studying one of the finest literary works on sin (among other subjects). We usually associate the concept of sin with Christianity, but it is present in most religions, though not always defined in the same terms. Wisdom literature from the ancient world often involves catalogues of prohibitions that lay out what that culture considered sinful. Egyptian funerary texts are particularly rich in such catalogues, describing a divine judgment after death at the hands of the goddess Maat (whose name means “right” or “balance”) in which the soul of the dead would repeat a list of sins they had refrained from and, if their repetition was found to be truthful, they would be admitted to a blissful afterlife; but, if the soul were found false, it would be devoured by the chimeric monster Ammit.

The idea of sin in ancient Greece was closely tied to the idea of pollution; people who committed certain peculiarly horrible offenses, such as murder, sacrilege, or cannibalism, were believed to be subject to a miasma, a stain of defilement that could spread like a disease to their whole city, unless the offender was killed (or in some cases exiled). The Furies, who avenged crimes against kin and broken oaths, would pursue and punish anyone who bore a miasma until atonement had been made, often by animal sacrifice and ritual purification.

In Judaism, possibly drawing on the extensive legal traditions of Mesopotamia, the connection between sin and impurity was maintained, but the specifically moral aspect of sin—something that could not be wiped away solely by ritual means—was emphasized. The famous text “To obey is better than sacrifice” is representative of the Jewish outlook on this point. The Torah, which contained the whole legal and moral code of Judaism, was conceived of as a covenant (more akin to a marriage than a business contract) between God and the Jewish people, so that its strictures took on a far less magical and more personal character. Interestingly, whereas many religious people of all faiths tend to view bad fortune as a divine punishment for sin, the Jewish book of Job treats this idea quite harshly, which may reflect a development from a partially magical idea of pollution to a more “disinterested virtue” schema.

All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.

W. H. Auden

The Christian doctrine of sin, while inherited from Judaism, developed in a rather different direction. The idea of original sin, not clearly present in the Tanakh, was formulated by St. Paul and refined a few centuries later by St. Augustine. This shares something with the old idea of sin-as-pollution, but extends it to mankind as such: every person is born with guilt inherited from Adam, the forefather of the whole human race, so that we are born both alienated from God and with a predisposition to selfishness that we cannot cure ourselves of. This manifests itself in specific sins, or actual sin as distinct from original sin; but the “pre-existing condition” is the root of the problem, and can only be mended by supernatural intervention, which in the Orthodox and Catholic Christian traditions is held to be made available in the sacraments, especially baptism and confession.

The tradition of Christian monasticism, beginning in Egypt and the Levant, made a study of sin, due to its striving for holiness by means of ascetic disciplines. This eventually led to the classification of the seven capital sins (often referred to by the popular title of the “seven deadly sins”), i.e. the roots or kinds of sin: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. This list, with a few complications—for instance, vanity is sometimes specified as a subspecies of pride, and sloth or “accidie” is sometimes divided into mere laziness and the graver sin of despair—has become a commonplace of western culture, appearing everywhere from spiritual manuals to horror films.

This basic structure was accepted by the Protestant Reformers, but important details were challenged. Nearly all the Reformers (though curiously, not Luther himself) rejected the idea that confession was a sacrament and that divine forgiveness was specifically channeled through the Church; some of the more radical Reformers denied that the Church had the authority to define sins. Nearly all sects of Protestantism, at least at their inception, treated human bondage to sin as far more complete than Catholics did, even after a person placed their faith in Christ; Luther famously compared the believer’s heart to a pile of dung concealed by snow, as an analogy for the imputed righteousness they received from God.

More recent analyses of sin have tended toward psychology rather than theology as their chief lens. Psychologists rarely use words like “sin” or “evil,” which can be unproductive in a therapeutic context, but words like “unhealthy” or “abusive” fill much the same intellectual niches. Nor are they nearly as alien to the traditional idea of sin as is sometimes thought; the Latin term for salvation also means “health,” and the word for sin in the Greek New Testament literally means something more like “error” or “flaw” in modern English. Beginning largely with Freud’s concept of the superego, an aspect of the self that represents internalized cultural standards of behavior, psychological “sin” has been treated principally as antisocial actions and attitudes, rather than offenses against a supernatural order (although the two conceptions can coexist).

Suggested reading:
The Egyptian Book of the Dead, “The Negative Confession”
Æschylus, The Oresteia
St. Augustine, Confessions
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will
Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

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If you liked this post, take a look at some of our other pieces in the “Great Conversation” series, like this one on the idea of God, this one on the history of poetry, or this one on the concept of evolution. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, where our founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading intellectuals to discuss issues of education, policy, and culture.

Page image of The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563.

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