On Sin

A knight prepares to do battle with the seven deadly sins in the “Treatise on the Vices” by William Peraldus, circa 13th century

In order to understand the world, it is essential to understand sin. Without a proper appreciation of sin, all anthropology is destined to fail.

Let me start out by establishing two very important truths. First, sin is not a theological buzzword. It is not something that exists merely in the realm of theory – an abstract concept latched onto by those seeking to comprehend the world around them. It is not just some word that religious fundamentalists use to describe people unlike themselves, things that scare them, and actions they find distasteful. This is not the true meaning of sin, however much some individuals might attempt to co-opt the concept. Sin is the deadly enemy of the human race. It is killing us every day – claiming us for its own.

Second, sin is not just a single action or series of actions. From a human perspective, it can certainly seem so, and that is how we usually address the topic. You tell a lie, you sin. You steal something, you sin. You punch someone in the face, you sin. All of this is true, but if that is the only way we think about sin, then we are missing the point. We are underestimating the problem in a way that is bound to lead us into all kinds of difficulties. It is more useful to think about sin as a state of being, a worldview, or a modus operandi. Sin is not just what a person does: it is part of their essence. The Bible calls this the sinful nature.

I recently heard a very interesting idea: the most effective prison is one where the prisoner actually wants to stay. How could such a situation occur? When the prisoner comes to believe that black is white and night is day – that is, rather than being the source of their torment, the prison is in fact their source of protection and even liberation. Through a series of lies, they become convinced that leaving the prison is too risky and what they need is in the hands of those who hold them captive. It’s not so much that they lose the desire to be free, but rather that they are mistaken as to where true freedom can be found. Sin is completely this way. Continue reading

Gluttons for Punishment?


An illustration by Albrecht Dürer depicting gluttony, circa 1498

What comes to mind when you hear the word “gluttony”?  My immediate mental image is of a rotund man sitting at a banquet table, turkey leg in one hand and wine goblet in the other, stuffing his face past the point of normal endurance.  My imagination then expands to the Independence Day hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s on Coney Island, sumo wrestlers gorging themselves on trays full of sushi, and frat boys trying to best each other in a drinking contest.  Perhaps I even see a cruise ship drifting through the Caribbean, its eager occupants devouring food and drink 24/7.

These scenarios range from silly to serious, and all of them have to do with the rapid devouring (I use this same word again because no verb in English seems to capture the meaning of gluttony as well as “devour”) of some kind of food or beverage, all of which usually leads to or is a part of bad behavior. But in our culture, such consumption is not considered to be especially bad.  Continue reading