In T.S. Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party, Celia Copelstone tells a psychiatrist, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, of her symptoms, which are two. For one, she has an “awareness of solitude,” which we gather Sir Henry considers uncommon though not rare. But that second symptom? CELIA: “That’s stranger still./ It sounds ridiculous—but the only word for it/ That I can find is a sense of sin.” REILLY: “You suffer from a sense of sin, Miss Coplestone?/This is most unusual.”
Eliot’s play had its premiere at the 1949 Edinburgh Festival (with Irene Worth as Celia and Alec Guinness as Reilly), and half-a-century on a sense of sin is no less unusual. Who am I kidding? It’s about as rare as the Pinta Island tortoise.
It was not always so. Sin was once a concept at the center of religious attention. Early American children used to recite: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Not even kids were permitted to savor life without tasting bitter fruit. But that was then. Newfangled science and old-fashioned selfishness – sometimes masquerading as social science – have joined to give cover to behavior that once carried the peril of Hell.
Many consider this an existential upgrade: there are no sins, just disorders; there are no sinners, just victims. Sin, like witchcraft and other superstitions, has been overtaken by a more progressive dispensation. Well, witchcraft has actually been making a comeback, but many people, including progressive Catholics, see sins as so many strangled snakes lying lifeless around the crib of our Heraclean age. A sense of sin is no longer, as Eliot believed, a sign of an awakened spirit, but a symptom of a disordered psyche to be treated with therapy not penance.
In 1973, Karl Menninger published a well-received book, Whatever Became of Sin?, the thesis of which was this: “The very word ‘sin,’ which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word.” With the demise of a belief in sin comes a new, politically correct ban on sin-talk. According to Dr. Menninger, the last mention of sin made by an American public figure was in 1953 by Dwight Eisenhower on the occasion of the second National Day of Prayer. Few have spoken of it since.
But wait. The good doctor, not making a religious argument, wasn’t really concerned with sin as an offense against God – which is what it is after all – but with challenges to normative morality by certain behaviors and ideas arising out of the swamp of the Swinging Sixties. Menninger used the word “sin,” as he put it, broadly enough to “meet the needs of both believers and nonbelievers.”
He was a shrink, not a confessor. He wanted to see Americans recover feelings of shame and believed that whereas common, secular ethics were derived from Judeo-Christian religion, which is to say from God’s law, religion itself was on the wane and secularism on the rise. And he thought it necessary to fight a kind of rearguard action against aberrance with the only tool at hand: science – an often powerful bludgeon to be sure. In this case, however, science was and is an ineffective weapon.
I’m struck by how emblematic of our time Dr. Menninger’s book still is. It appropriates the potent language of a great truth, but by dismissing the truth itself, weakens not only its own position but, for some, the truth itself. Everybody loses. This reminds me of the way a professor once described to me the life of the philosopher Nietzsche: He was the world’s most influential atheist, who saw the implications of unbelief and went nuts. In Menninger’s case, he was driven to hectoring about responsibility.
It is, of course, right to hope for healthy, responsible men and women, but healthiness just won’t work as an even swap for holiness. For half a century, lots of people have been preaching therapy rather than repentance, and where has it got us? Sin recast as psycho-social disorder rends the garment of faith and leaves us naked. If all folks need is treatment, they don’t need Salvation, and about that we know they are wrong. “If we say we have no sin,” John writes in his First Epistle, “we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.”
Just recently, Benedict XVI said: “These days, the correct formation of believers’ consciences is without a doubt one of the pastoral priorities because, unfortunately, as I have reaffirmed on other occasions, to the extent that the sense of sin is lost, feelings of guilt increase which people seek to eliminate by recourse to inadequate palliative remedies.”
So, as to the question, whatever became of sin? The answer is that it’s still wild and roaring looking for souls to devour, but too many people are treating the lion like a domesticated tabby, an arrangement that won’t end well.
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