This Week’s Puzzler!
Name a three letter word, which will stop a conversation. Say it and watch people avert their eyes, stiffen, and slip away as quickly as possible. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book about whatever happened to it.
You’re right! The word is sin.
Here is Menninger: But first I must return to the promise to review the events in the recent rapid decline and disappearance of the word “sin,” not because any particular word is so important in itself, but because its obsolescence may be a clue to fundamental changes in the moral philosophy of our civilization. (Whatever Happened to Sin? 1973, p 27)
Thirty seven years later, sin sounds even more archaic. Sin grates against the ear like some antiquated puritanical rant. In a culture with license to say any swear word or expletive one can come up with, the taboo word is, ironically, sin.
Part of this may be due to a trivialization of the meaning of sin and the distortions we bring to it. For many, sin carries negative connotations of judgment, intolerance, hellfire and brimstone. However, sin is not a moralistic judgment. Sin, which is separation from God, is a description of the condition of creation, a condition of alienation and estrangement from our highest good.
Eugene Peterson writes, Sinner means something is awry between humans and God. In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent. Those items are not part of the judgment. The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God. The Contemplative Pastor
As reasons for the decline of sin as a category for understanding the human condition, psychiatric nurse, Norman L. Keltner, cites four factors: First, the influence of psychology on our understanding of human behavior. Second, the erosion of personal responsibility.
A third factor is the focusing away from behaviors to one’s feelings about those behaviors. .. The implications of such views were that if individuals could get in touch with their feelings and understand their motivation, then many unacceptable behaviors were acceptable. While not totally devoid of some standard, the overwhelming move to openmindedness blurred the lines. When coupled with the growing philosophical view that right and wrong are better conceptualized as personal values than as community values, tolerance of once frowned upon or forbidden behaviors occurred.