What is this Thing Called Sin?

And no, this is meant not bo be a definitive answer for y’all. However, recently the Weekend Fisher has written a short post comparing it to losing face

Recently in a Dogmatic theology class a quote from, if I recall, one of the Cappadoccian fathers had offered that your sin “like” a veil being drawn between you and God. People in the class reacted positively, as if this was interesting and insightful way of stating it. However, this was for me problematic, because my understanding was that sin was basically defined pretty much in that way. So the question might be why is that an interesting observation if it is also basically the definition for sin. A week later, our instructor came back with a definition for sin that she managed to find, which was that sin is “taking your attention away from God.” 

So, for y’all what is your working definition for what is this thing called sin? 

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  1. Sin is that which violates religious rules. Everything else is a rationalization religious people tell themselves and each other to feel better about the fact that they live their lives judging themselves by rules that are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and often completely arbitrary.

  2. Mark says:

    Uhm, while the Jewish faith is basically explicitly deontological (in brief defining ethics = following rules), not all religions are. Christianity has deontological aspects is also has aspects which explictly reject that especially regarding defining what constitutes sin. Other (Eastern) religions go further still in rejecting deontology while retaining ethics.

    Your generalization, I’d offer, fails.

  3. You’re right, “rules” is too specific. More like “rules, dogma, traditions, etc.”

    Take homosexuality, for example. The taboo against it in Christianity predates any “it takes you further from God” rationalization for it.

  4. Mark says:

    “Takes you further from God” predates the 4th century.

  5. The taboo on homosexuality goes back much farther.

  6. Mark says:

    Within Christianity you only have 2 1/2 centuries to go. Now, if I recall, you don’t read a lot that I suggest, but Sarah Ruden wrote a book, Paul among the People, which points out in the first millennial Mediterranean world homosexuality typically meant roving bands of very drunk young adults who raped men and women indiscriminately. She is a scholar of literature of that period. She is from a liberal Christian theological background which tends to think poorly (that is to say much like you) regarding a lot of what Paul taught. Then she connected what she knew about the anthropology and living conditions in that era and to her surprise and astonishment much of what Paul was teaching made a whole lot of sense.

    For example, when he talks about women should “cover their heads” in service … which sounds sexist. But in Paul’s era, hair and covering signaled that a women was married, single, slave, or prostitute. By asking them to dress uniformly he removed that distinction within the society of the Church. So, what appears as sexist was actually the opposite. Her findings on what he said about practicing witchcraft and homosexuality similarly was the opposite of the cultural assumptions in her church (and again, against those you tend to parrot).

  7. Anne says:

    Hi Mark

    Thanks for the link. I’d have to agree that the post you linked is less about a “new perspective” and more about re-capturing ancient themes that too often have been left out of the conversation in American Christianity.

    I’ll answer about definitions of “sin” here, but to give you a clear picture I should distinguish between individual sins (thoughts / words / actions that are sinful) and a sinful condition. It’s the sinful condition that causes the individual actions. The sinful condition is a loss of fellowship with God and a loss of trust in God, which are very close to the same thing. The necessary result of these is the distrust and loss of fellowship with other people as well, which comes as part of the same sinful state. On the detail level, sinful thoughts / words / actions are ones that are built on an unjustified distrust or dislike of God and neighbor. That’s partial; given God’s call for us to heal the world, sometimes it can even be sinful to have thoughts / words / actions that are built on a *justified* distrust or dislike of our neighbor, when God wants us to act instead based on *unjustified” love and mercy towards them.

    And I suppose if we’re going to define “sin” I should also define “good”, since anything opposing the good is going to be sinful in its nature, built on distrust/dislike of God. I think the defining principle in “good” is the principle from Genesis, “And God saw that it was good”, referring to creation. So there are things that are sins that work out to “contempt for the good” that are one step removed from a direct contempt of God, instead a contempt for the goodness of the creation.

    I hear J.A’s line about “violating rules” fairly regularly, but it doesn’t describe Christianity as I know it. We’re called to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is a goal that is completely worthy of our whole-hearted devotion. I don’t apologize for pursuing it, only for falling short.

    Take care & God bless
    Anne / WF