Contrary to popular understanding,
sin does not consist of a catalogue of "bad behavior," rather it is a state of
being; it is a condition of alienation from God, the ground of our being. Sin
involves alienation from other people as well as the world in which we live. Sin
is the condition of estrangement from the source of life itself. The great insight
of Christianity is that all humans are born into a state of sin; we are separated
from God merely in the process of becoming separate individuals driven by our
own ego needs.
This inevitable situation is aggravated by a culture that
encourages greed and self-indulgence, among other harmful attitudes. Racism, warfare,
social structures that reinforce privilege, discrimination, and neglect of the
poor are symptoms of this alienation. Overcoming this estrangement is part of
life's fundamental purpose.
Unfortunately in popular Christian understanding
the word sin is more often treated as an adjective or label. For example, having
sex outside of marriage is labeled as a "sin" in an effort to control such behavior.
Likewise using certain words, or behaving in ways that are not approved by those
interested in enforcing conventional morality .... this is called "sinful." Using
the word "sin" in this way robs it of theological depth as well as any utility
in advancing real understanding of the human condition.
When most people
use the word "sin" what they really mean is "behavior that I personally believe
is morally wrong." Thus, it is a means of criticizing others rather than being
an important step along the road to self understanding; "sin" thus becomes a word
that divides one group of people from another rather than bringing them together
in a deeper relationship with God. In other words, the word "sin" is often used
in "sinful" ways to further alienate rather than to increase understanding of
or to build the beloved community which, in the teaching of Jesus, is one of the
chief ends and purposes of life.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.