Reluctantly re-examining personal sin

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

As a Social Gospeler who doesn’t think much about personal sin, I am tempted to explain away the actions of these small-minded people using the concepts of popular psychology: they must have something bad going on elsewhere in their lives to make them act this way, or perhaps they had troubled childhoods. As a twenty-first century Social Gospeler, I am especially prone to use the psychology of family systems theory: the problem lies, not in the individual, but in the social system that allows such behavior. But psychology is designed to explain why persons behave the way they behave; psychology does not make moral judgments, it does not say when something is good and right, or bad and wrong; psychology is not a substitute for morals and ethics.

I’m extremely reluctant to re-introduce the concept of personal sin into my religious life. I’m quite comfortable talking about the sins of society. I’m quite comfortable talking about evil, which I think of as those dark forces outside of us, and in some sense outside our control, that can force us to do things that are bad. Besides, the word “sin” has been so badly misused by so many people in our society that it’s almost unusable in ordinary conversation. Yet my friend really was sinned against; I was perfectly willing to agree that those small-minded people sinned when they made my friend’s life miserable.

What do you think? As a religious liberal, do you think about personal sin, or not? How do you define personal sin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

12 thoughts on “Reluctantly re-examining personal sin”

  1. I might be cool with reintroducing personal sin. I always liked the Seven Deadly Sins. There’s a sin I’ve been thinking about lately: the sin of righteousness. Why people think they can behave abominably because they believe in their cause, I understand, but wish I didn’t. Of course, they don’t think they’ve behaving abominably when they’re only stating The Truth; that’s why libs and cons can argue endlessly over who is less civil.

  2. I’m still working on my definition of personal sin. (But I know it when I see it!)

    Hi Dan. Been a reader and lurker and now first time poster. Thanks for your blog.

    I was raised in the tradition you described and entered the liberal ministry in my 20s. I am grateful to have missed the heavy burden that my childhood friends from other religious traditions carried regarding personal sin; much of it related to sexuality, gender expectations self-expression, etc. However, recently I have found myself drawn to the concept of personal sin as a definer/describer of actions and choices. Perhaps it is age–being in my 40s and witnessing more human behavior, seeing the repercussions of choices that people make (not unlike the behavior toward your friend) and wanting for more weighty moral discrimination and language. Perhaps it is parenting two young boys and being responsible for guiding their moral development. All to say, personal sin is on my radar.

    I’m looking forward to this conversation. Thanks for starting it.

  3. I have left undone those things which I ought to have done; And I have done those things which I ought not to have done.

    Perhaps not ‘sin’ since that word comes with a lot of presuppositions, but, I think we all hurt others at times when other people in similar situations would not have done so.

  4. Social Gospel Unitarianism? Okay, I give. Explain, dear brother. We went to the same UU church. Did I learn this too?

  5. Hmm. First, I don’t connect sin and salvation. The concept of sin is ndependent of whether there is any such thing as salvation from whatever. You capture an important feature of sin in your third paragraph – someone had a CHOICE, and they sinned when they made an immoral choice. To call something sin, then, there are two components: a standard for what is moral and immoral, and choice. I am perfectly willing to grant the first – we could start with “love your neighbor as yourself”, for example. As regards choice, if we view everything that we do a determined by forces outside ourself, then we are not moral agents – the extreme view would be a kind of predestination via external forces. If you think that we are agents capable of making choice, and that some of those choices are immoral, then I think such choices are sin.

  6. How timely! Our minister just gave a sermon today on the 7 Deadly Sins, and gave his perspective on sin as actually being “missing the mark”. At our young adult lunch afterward we had a long discussion about sin and how we battle that in our personal lives. It was a very unusual topic of conversation for a bunch of folks raised UU!

  7. Will @ 1 — Oo, the Sin of Righteousness, I like it!

    Rachel @ 2 — Thanks for de-lurking. You mention the impact of your two boys on your evolving conception of personal sin — this is an interesting connection for me, and I’ll have to think about whether my return to an educational ministry, where I’m working with children a lot more, is part of what has opened me up to re-examining this whole thing.

    Erp @ 3 — Nice capsule definition. Being trained in philosophy I keep wanting to modify it, of course, but the more I think about it, the more I think that a modification of your definition is going to require a much, much longer explanation.

    Jean @ 4 — Social Gospel = sin is located in the injustices of the world, not in the individual. By the time you and I were kids, Unitarians had pretty much completely dropped the name “Social Gospel” and had pretty much dropped the idea of pseronal sin, so all we got was that we were supposed to make the world a better place.

    Tom @ 5 — Ah yes, the question of free will does enter into this, doesn’t it? Rats. I got tired of talking about free will predestination a long time ago. I gotta be honest, if I have to talk about free will in order to talk about sin, that could be a deal-breaker for me.

    Sara @ 6 — I’ve heard the “missing the mark” definition of sin, which goes back at least to the ancient Greeks (remember, I was a philosophy major), and while it is very useful I don’t find it covers exactly what I’m talking about here. I think what I’m trying to get at in this post is what should I think about people who have deliberately aimed at evil — they’re not missing the mark, they’ve actually chosen a different mark — they have made a deliberate choice.

  8. Social Gospel and personal sin are compatible. The main point of Social Gospel was that the gospels require us to act to end social ills. Those ills might well be traced back to personal sins–e.g., the factory owner whose greed causes him to lock his workers into a firetrap.

    Yes, I believe in personal sin, because, at the risk of sounding more like Ayn Rand than a Social Gospeller, moral choices are made within the minds of individuals. Looking at the circumstances that influence a person towards evil choices (yep, I believe in evil too) is very important, but it doesn’t require that we ignore personal responsibility. For example, we know that people who are abused as children are more likely to abuse others. That might give us much-needed compassion for people who commit abuse, and just as important, a key to preventing and healing it, but it doesn’t mean we don’t hold people responsible for the abuse they commit.

    Missing the mark: oftentimes, people who deliberately aim at evil think they are aiming at good (I think Will is onto something with the sin of righteousness.) So they may well be “missing the mark” too. Maybe it’s not such an apt metaphor in this case, but it captures the sense that we try to do good but don’t have a good enough perception of what is the right thing to aim right. Still, it doesn’t really fit my own sense of what is going on within me when I do wrong. Erp’s quote from the Book of Common Prayer comes the closest (though I strongly depart from the line that follows: “. . . and there is no health in me”–too much Utter Depravity for my theology).

  9. How about this: a scale of bad deeds. Point scale optional (0 – 10)

    Unintentional bad deed: you back into your neighbor’s rose bush and flatten it. Bad deed. Not intended. 0 points.

    Intentional bad deed: you back into your neighbor’s rose bush and flatten it. Bad Deed. You meant it. 3 points.

    Unintentional because you were lazy very bad deed: your pension plan invests in some company that clubs baby seals. Very bad deed. You were too lazy to read your pension plan. 5 points.

    Intentional because you are greedy jerk very bad deed: your pension plan invests in some company that clubs baby seals. Very bad deed. You are don’t care. In fact you want the money that this company raises in your pension. You are a jerk. 7 points.

    Unintentional rotten deed: people on the other side of the globe are dying and you don’t bother to know, and thus don’t care, and thus don’t intercede in any effective manner (call this the Anti-Paul-Farmer effect). 8.5 points.

    Intentional rotten deed(s): people on the other side of the globe are dying and you know, don’t care, gape at the news reports, shake your head with a mix of horror for them, happiness for you, and then change the channel to FOX News (this gets you a whole extra bad deed point by the way) to watch the stock report to see how your baby seal clubbing company is faring. It’s doing great. You smile. Then you drive your SUV to work, aim for and hit a squirrel, laugh uproariously, toss your MacDonald’s wrapper out the window, run over another neighbor’s rose bush, tailgate an old lady, and when you arrive at work, you leer at young women (or men, depending), drive a new employee to tears, and spend the day playing Blokus online. 10 points.

  10. I was raised in a harsh, judgmental Southern Baptist home and was taken to church every time the doors were open. I heard a lot about personal sin. As I got older I read some of Harry Emerson Fosdick and loosened up some. And I’ve even become a Unitarian Universalist. Recently while in the hospital for some surgery and on some heavy medicines, I experienced some hallucinations and out of body travels. Nothing scary and a lot more interesting than tubes, drip bags, and hospital noises. About 6 days into this significant isolation, I became aware that down deep I am an angry person. I have reason to be…I’ve been in hours of therapy. But in my anger I sometimes hurt people, and I spoke often more to impress than to communicate something. I decided to stop doing that…to weigh more carefully what I say. And I’m pleased to say that my relationships with people have improved. What made me angry had been out there in my world but what I did with that anger was inside me, personal.

  11. Stephen Bailey @ 10 — Thanks for the thoughtful reflection. You’ve gotten me thinking about the link between anger and personal sin — a very complex issue, but well worth thinking about.

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