dialog 38:4 (Fall 1999) 299-301.
THE DOCTRINE OF SIN AS A WORD OF GRACE
Theologian Paul Tillich warns us that "the great words" of Christian tradition "cannot be replaced." He then goes on to define "sin" as a state of being before it is an action: a state of being isolated from others, from oneself, and from God. Out of this isolated or estranged state, sinful actions arise.1 Gary Pence's article orchestrates a similar maneuver: he begins with a psychological challenge to a 1941 confessional use of the word sin, suggesting that the doctrine itself is abusive. In the end he offers us a new definition of sin complete with a contemporary confession. That is no small achievement.
In contrast to Gary Pence, I suggest that "sin," this great word of our tradition, offers a word of grace at the turn of the twenty-first century, a much needed reprieve from psychoculture. Sin announces that something is greatly wrong and opens conversation on human suffering of a particular sort that resurfaces in every generation in adapted cultural clothes.
Unlike Pence, I approach the topic as one who did not grow up in the church, but wandered into a local congregation in my teens where I was welcomed and supported. I now belong to a congregation that has dogmatically refused to use the word "sin." In addition, I have been a marriage and family therapist for the past twenty-five years and have been steeped in a tradition that seeks to treat human emotional suffering with no doctrine of evil at all except "our mothers did it to us."
Some psychologists have claimed to be the new priests for human living, frightening the psycho-faithful. Psychology is a strange religion. While it offers us tools to assist those in emotional pain as well as skills and understanding to help raise children, most schools of psychology claim, as Christian denominations have before them, that their approach is the true way to help human beings achieve emotional health and happiness. As psychology becomes popular, generalizations become more extreme and more dogmatic. We are told by one popularizer that 97% of American families are dysfunctional and by another school that helping other people is itself likely to foster codependence. Both of these imply that there is a "right way" if only we can find it.
Another deadly doctrine of psychology is that there is a right way to raise children, guaranteeing that they will be happy and successful adults. Frightened young people tell me earnestly that they want to be psychologically healthy. Terrified mothers steeped in the intense demands of caring for young children worry about "doing something wrong."
Psychology promises more than it can deliver. The promises have an absolutist tone and feed Albert Ellis's observed "three fundamental 'irrational beliefs' about ourselves, others, and the world": that we absolutely must succeed, that others absolutely must treat us well, and that living conditions absolutely must be comfortable and rewarding.2 These beliefs, temptations primarily of the affluent First World which would be unimaginable to most of the human family, are employed mercilessly by the marketing industry, and they are recognizable in uses of Christianity. The irrational beliefs guarantee that we human beings can be in charge of our own destiny, that we can keep bad things from happening to us and to those we love. These unfounded beliefs promise that we will not have to deal with our finitude.
I suggest that fictions which feed these basic irrational beliefs take different forms for each generation, but the promise of invulnerability remains constant. In the 1950s, for example, marriage and family was the formula that seemed to guarantee perfect happiness to women. In the 1960s the Human Potential Movement advocated "self-actualization." In the 1970s a professional career promised lasting happiness for both sexes. In the 1980s and '90s the New Age Movement claims yet another form of self-control, even cosmic control. Slightly varying promises that we can ignore our finitude will be continually put forth. These promises foster Ellis's three irrational beliefs, and we always fall for them. And they reliably lead to "condemnation and despair."
It is here that the doctrine of sin offers blessing. The doctrine of sin says unequivocally that something is greatly wrong, and we cannot fix it. That something is wrong confirms what we know for certain in those midnights we lie awake regretting some senseless selfish act we inflicted on another.3 That we can't fix it strikes at the heart of our resistance to finitude which regularly hardens into perfectionism. There is truth in the doctrine of sin.
Pence dismisses traditional portrayals of God as angry and vindictive: these are a projection out of our own despair, our disappointment with ourselves and the world. He suggests instead a God of tenderness who delights in us. Pence redefines sin, "I focus on sin as irrational belief and the counterproductive condemnation and despair that derive from it." Sin is "a tragic human dilemma rather than a vile human act."
What Pence says here I applaud. In other words sin is bad for us; it is sometimes unconscious, not entirely voluntary. I would elaborate. We humans feel bad about ourselves and others. We are unable to appreciate the blessings of the world. Even human gifts go awry: natural empathy for others becomes manipulation of others; talents and gifts become competitive efforts to best and to dominate; hope founded in our desire to control fosters perfectionism and despair. We both participate in sin and are victims of it.
I want to take Pence's definition a step further. Sin is at base resistance to finitude, a passionate desire not to be vulnerable and out of control. The temptation and fall of Genesis 3 was not a desire for knowledge itself but a desire for perfect control through knowledge of good and evil, a desire that fosters and feeds the three irrational beliefs. And the passion for control, which seems as naturally human as breathing, leads to vile human acts, acts which keep us awake at midnight regretting. It leads us to displace evil somewhere else. Psychology has glorified human nature and laid blame for evil on parents, particularly mothers.4 The "annoyance and anxiety" we feel from the suffering of the poor can be turned on them: "Poverty is their fault." Are we not in danger of projecting hopeful perfect parent fantasies on God as well as negative? Where can we go to confess and receive forgiveness? How can we be absolved of our guilt and shame before we can respond to God's delight in us?
The doctrine of sin itself offers grace within the community of the church by bringing our dilemma to conversation. It helps us face the reality that something is wrong. The God of tenderness woos us, delights in us, calls us good; but our desire for safety and control drives us instead to perfectionism, self-punishment, and despair. Such self-absorption makes us deaf to others and certainly to the cry of the poor.
Pence suggests that we can choose not to punish ourselves and to accept ourselves as works in progress. I do not agree that we have power to choose to eliminate our resistance to finitude. I suggest instead that we call to awareness this tendency in ourselves, our sin, and confess it as a part of the human condition. We can be aware that irrational beliefs are nurtured by our culture and that they excuse us from true concern for others. We can begin with Pence's confession giving voice to our awareness and regret, and add wisdom from traditional confessions which includes concern for more of the human family. We can continue to celebrate our countercultural God, who created and loves us. Embodying in community a semblance of this radical hope is the work and blessing of the church.
1Pau1 Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1948) 153-155.
2Albert Ellis as cited by Gary Pence in his article.
3Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998).
4The tendency in psychology to blame mothers has been merciless. Even Heinz Kohut, whom Pence cites and who has offered much insight and skill to the treatment of suffering people, assumes difficulty exists because of defective mothering. D. W. Winnicott, whom Pence also cites, is a pediatrician and knows more about children. He speaks of the rage children inflict on their parents. Parenting involves enduring the children's disappointment as they gradually discover they are not the center of the universe.
Margaret G. Alter is a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, California. She serves as adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union and is author of Resurrection Psychology (Loyola. 1992).