In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the provocative title, Whatever Became of Sin? His point was that sociology and psychology tend to avoid terms like “evil,” or “immorality,” and “wrongdoing.” Menninger detailed how the theological notion of sin became the legal idea of crime and then slid further from its true meaning when it was relegated to the psychological category of sickness.
Sin is now regarded as little more than a set of emotions that can be explained through genetics.
So something like lust is not a wrong that threatens our own health and the well-being of others; it’s simply an emotional urge that is rooted in the need to propagate the human species. It’s fixed in our genes.
We’ve become so uncomfortable with the idea of sin and evil, particularly in our own life, that we’ve even tried to turn it into a virtue; lust just becomes “sensuality,” and anger just means being honest with your emotions.
An example of Menninger’s prescience can be found in the news that broke this week regarding major league baseball’s highest paid player, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who admitted he took performance enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003.
In an interview with ESPN’s Peter Gammons, Rodriguez spoke candidly about why he took the drugs which are, of course, illegal. A-Rod said he felt pressured to take them; that the culture was loose; he was young, stupid, and naïve. He even said he was sorry for doing it. So what was he guilty of? Being negligent, naïve, and not asking the right questions.
When he was asked about whether he had, at least, lied when in an earlier interview with Katie Couric he denied using steroids, human growth hormones, or other performance-enhancing substances, he replied, “At the time...I wasn’t even being truthful with myself. How am I going to be truthful with Katie or CBS?”
Oh well, there’s no point in dancing around this “sin” thing. Either it exists, or it doesn’t. Either there is true culpability, or not. We are either “mistakers” or “sinners.” Pay your quarter and take your choice.
The latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children did just that. In a sweeping revision, “crucial words used to describe…traditional topics have been stripped…in favour of more ‘modern’ terms.” One analyst was more forthcoming, noting that over six editions, dating back to the 1970’s, there seemed to be an increasing and systematic purging of all words related to Christianity.
Among the entries which have vanished in the most recent edition: disciple, saint, abbey, bishop, altar, chapel, christen, monk, and, yes, sin.
So whatever became of sin in our culture?
Future generations may never know that such a word even existed.
James Emery White
Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).