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Fifty Years Later – Part 9

What is Sin?


Part 9: What is Sin?


Answering this question is both easy and difficult. The easy part is differentiating sin against God from plain old immorality, as well as from crime against society. The three are no identical. It was and is easy to understand that acts that one might label sin arise out of a state of being, an attitude, a perception, such that the act and the being reinforce each other. And there is another dimension: sinfulness is more than individual, it is a social phenomenon as well. But what is it? Answer: at the most basic level, it is refusal to participate in the divine activity to create justice and equality, a refusal that can manifest itself as apathy or outright antagonism. 

So far, so good. But there are three questions that are most difficult to answer, and they pertain to the origin, the totality, and the universality of sin. Fifty years ago, I could not explain why people were unloving [let’s use that word instead of sin] at least some of the time. Was it due to social influences whereby the unloving attitudes of one generation are passed on to the next? Was it just part of being a finite human being, allowing the fear of an inevitable death, for example, to overshadow our love for others? Where and how did this negative dimension originate? Nor were there easy answers to the questions of whether this unlovingness permeated our very being and whether anyone escaped. I was quite certain that all humans want to be loving, but are thereby aware of the temptation to be unloving, and easily give in. It is not sin that is original but temptation, inescapable, universal, and simply given as a fact of life. How we respond to temptation is another question.


Over the last fifty years the insights of psychology and neuroscience have offered a new way to understand what I will refer to as human egocentricity. As mentioned in the previous chapter, even before we come into this world we are shaped by prenatal chemicals, and once born we are bombarded with inchoate sensations that are scattered and lacking any integration. Seeking understanding, our brain does its best to organize the messages coming in, creating connections, patterns and associations, a process necessary if one is to survive. As a matter of course, new information is made to fit into these pre-established patterns, and in that process the new information is transformed into a perception that is not quite what it was. A private world is created, a world that builds upon its preconceived notions, distorting reality, and ultimately confusing perception with reality. 

One might assume that one would recognize the limitations of their egocentric world and seek to learn from others what they see, so that a more complete understanding would eventuate. Such open-mindedness, however, seems non-existent. We prefer to believe that we know it all, and then act as if we do. We like our little world.

What we have, then, is an understanding of human nature that explains why we behave in a manner that is contrary to the loving person we can be and want to be. Our life is one lived as if with a blindfold. And this blindness is 1 universal, 2 total, and 3 originates in the unfolding of human development. Thusly it answers the three difficult questions presented above. It does not necessitate that we be totally unloving or sinful or irresponsible- whatever word we choose to use, nor does it mean that we can not grow and learn from others. But what it does mean is that we must continually strive for a more open-minded perspective, welcoming those moments that work to open our eyes. 

Almost 50 years ago I wrote a book entitled What to Believe??, subtitled The Questions of Christian Faith. Fortress Press had been looking for such a book, and so published it in 1974. Fifty years later, I thought it might be interesting to see how my thinking today has changed. Hence the title Fifty Years Later.

In re-reading the old book, it is clear how much our language and interests have changed: God was a “he” and human beings were “men”. But beyond the use of pronouns, the questions today have a different twist. Christian theology of the past has usually arranged topics into familiar categories: creation, providence, human nature/anthropology, christology, sin, the church, eschatology, etc. I tried to be creative by phrasing the topics as questions, but it was still arranged according to the familiar categories. I’m not sure that the new questions can be directly correlated to the old, but I’ll relate them as best I can. 


Read the Series Here

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith,   The Void and the Vision and  The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.

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