Why Guilt is a Valuable Human Experience

  1. It is evidence that we respect the tension between what we are and what we strive to become.
  2. Without it, we tend towards apathy and indifference towards ethical ideals.
  3. It is an outgrowth of interpersonal relationships in which persons care for one another enough to offer approval or disapproval.
  4. To live without guilt is psychopathic.

-Paul Johnson, “Psychology of Religion Revised and Enlarged”

Guiltless Living and Psychopathy

“The person who feels no guilt is psychopathic. His character structure is so impaired that he does not respond to the interests and ideal goals of his human kind but deceives himself that they do not matter. Sinless re- ligion is also deceptive. It deceives all who think it makes no difference what one believes or does. It brings confusion of truth and error, good and evil, not recognizing the distinction between values and disvalues. If re- ligion is the search for divine good, it matters supremely whether one is achieving good or evil. With lack of concern about sin there is failure to define, to declare, and to realize values. A false complacency of careless neutrality is the nadir of religious deception.” -Paul Johnson, “Psychology of Religion Revised and Expanded”

Why We Need the Doctrine of Sin

  1. It reminds us that life is a moral affair- life is more than brain chemistry and upbringing, it involves moral responsibility and a series of choices.
  2. Sin is communal- it is a problem that all of humanity shares in together (this makes sympathy possible, and it makes the battle against sin a collective effort).
  3. It rings true- it’s how we take good ideas and push them too far into self-serving ideas.
  4. Without it character is impossible to develop- character is built through battling internal sins.

David Brooks, The Road to Character

The Progression of Sin

“The danger of sin, in other words, is that it feeds on itself. Small moral compromises on Monday make you more likely to commit other, bigger moral compromises on Tuesday. A person lies to himself and soon can no longer distinguish when he is lying to himself and when he isn’t. Another person is consumed by the sin of self-pity, a passion to be a righteous victim that devours everything around it as surely as anger or greed. People rarely commit the big sins out of the blue. They walk through a series of doors. They have an unchecked problem with anger. They have an unchecked problem with drinking or drugs. They have an unchecked problem of sympathy. Corruption breeds corruption. Sin is the punishment of sin.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character

The Slipperiness of Sin (and A Brief ‘Tweak’)

“To say you are a sinner is not to say that you have some black depraved stain on your heart. It is to say that, like the rest of us, you have some perversity in your nature. We want to do one thing, but we end up doing another. We want what we should not want. None of us wants to be hard-hearted, but sometimes we are. No one wants to self-deceive, but we rationalize all the time. No one wants to be cruel, but we all blurt things out and regret them later. No one wants to be a bystander, to commit sins of omission, but, in the words of the poet Marguerite Wilkinson, we all commit the sin of “unattempted loveliness.” We really do have dappled souls. The same ambition that drives us to build a new company also drives us to be materialistic and to exploit. The same lust that leads to children leads to adultery. The same confidence that can lead to daring and creativity can lead to self-worship and arrogance. Sin is not some demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency to f*ck things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher. Sin, when it is committed over and over again, hardens into loyalty to a lower love.” -David Brooks, The Road to Character

BTW NOTE: I like aspects of this section. Brooks shows how deceptive sin can be, and how we are tricked by it. But Brooks’s language is a little too weak. He makes us purely ‘unwitting sinners.’ Sinners who always mean to do the right thing for everybody, but get tripped up by well-intended but mistaken motives. I would say this is true of us sometimes, but not all the time. Also, though Brooks objects to the metaphor of a ‘black depraved stain’ on the heart, that language actually is pretty close to how Christianity has talks about sin (Ps. 51, Isaiah 1:18). A better formulation would be to say, we are both enslaved to sin and can be pulled by it in directions we don’t always mean to go, and yet we are also active perpetrators of wrong. It’s not one or the other. It’s both/and. We mess things up, and we willfully do what we want instead of what God wants. You gotta have both dimensions of sin or else the definition is too shallow and one dimensional.

Cultural Observation: Why People Reject the Word “Sin”

  1. It’s too dark a depiction of human nature [See Valley of Vision prayer “Yet, I Sin”]
  2. It was a concept used to wage war on healthy pleasures like sex and entertainment. Avoiding sin meant living a joyless life.
  3. It was wielded recklessly by self-righteous and authoritarian people.

See David Brooks, The Road to Character

Brooks goes on to say, “But in truth, “sin,” like “vocation” and “soul,” is one of those words that it is impossible to do without. It is one of those words—and there will be many in this book—that have to be reclaimed and modernized. Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry, no matter how hard we try to reduce behavior to the sort of herd instinct that is captured in big data, no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like “mistake” or “error” or “weakness,” the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. It just means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become increasingly blind to the moral stakes of everyday life.”