What Is Sin?

David: Again, speaking from my best understanding of my branch of Christianity (others might see it differently) the Greek word translated “sin” in the New Testament literally means “missing the mark,” i.e. to fail to hit the target, or to fail to reach our potential. In the Eastern branch of Christianity this potential is defined as “union with God,” i.e. to become as god-like, as much in “the likeness of God” as is possible for a human being. Therefore whatever tends to takes us off that trajectory is “sin.” Unfortunately, the idea of sin has been misinterpreted in a legalistic/moralistic sense. My understanding is that it is not really a moral or ethical concept but rather an existential/ontological one. “Sins” are not crimes, violations of some legal code, but rather “sin” is a condition, more a “disease” to be cured than a crime to be expiated.


Aristotle uses the Greek term Hamartia (I think in the Poetics, but must Google), a term in archery (bows and arrows) for MISSING THE MARK, hence INACCURACY. We sometimes hear the expression “a miss is as good as a mile.” A mathematician once remarked regarding the so-called irrational numbers such as Pi that given the limitations of accuracy of instrumentation, one might achieve a numerical measure sufficiently accurate simply but using enough decimal places. Pi to ten or twenty decimal places can measure the circumference of the perceptible universe to within an accuracy of one foot. Jesus hints at degrees and levels in various passages (as “in my Father’s house are many mansions” and also when the man asks “Good teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life” the very first answer is “keep the commandments,” but later when further pressed, Jesus says “but IF you would be [more] perfect.. then sell all your good.. etc” and also the business about those who make eunuchs of themselves for the sake of the kingdom (i.e. practice celibacy), and Paul’s description of marriage as something which is permitted (out of economia) but would that everyone lived in chastity. Also, note, the epistle of James says to COMFORT widows and orphans, not to MARRY the widows.

But even in a Godless world of pure chaos, we recognize things that are noble and base, right and wrong, and we do not need angels or prophets to tell us what is more noble and what is more base. When Jonas Salk invented the vaccine for polio, he would not have been a sinner to patent it and make a fortune (he would have been a shrewd and wealthy capitalist) but Salk said “this belongs to all children of all peoples.” Whenever a stranger goes way out of their way to help you you are aware of their goodness. And when a friend or spouse or relative uses you or molests you or exploits you you are aware of that also. You need not consult “Ethics for Dummies” or “Morality 101.”


I imagine that the “law kills” precisely because it encouraged scrupulosity with regards to tithing but indifference with respect to righteousness, justice and mercy (Matt. 23:23 For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness;) I suppose the doctrine of salvation solely by faith kills in the sense that it renders struggle and self-discipline a matter of insignificance. I would be greatly surprised were I to learn that Oral Roberts is saved but I would not at all be surprised if Oscar Wilde is saved. Abraham Maslow wrote: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. So, if the only spiritual tool we have is profession of faith, or speaking in tongues or some other shallow formulaic strategy, then every human problem will be seen in terms of that one and only tool which we believe that we possess. Rabbi Harold Kushner said that while many Jews after the Holocaust were saying “God, how could you let this happen” that God must surely have been saying “Humanity, how could you have allowed this to happen.” In the German film “Zentropa” an idealistic young German-American returns to Germany after WWII to help in the reconstruction. He meets a Catholic priest and asks “Since both sides prayed to God for victory, how can God choose since only one side can be in the right?” The priest explains that God looks not at the objective notions of right and wrong but at the subjective disposition of each individual heart (for those that are neither hot nor cold but lukewarm are ‘spewed from the mouth’ i.e. spit out.)


I admire Evelyn Waugh for choosing Roman Catholicism over the Protestants, saying “it is a choice between order and chaos.” I understand why C.S. Lewis said to Rome “It is not that I do not agree with what you believe but simply that I cannot agree to believe whatever you might come to believe in the future (Papal Infallibility).” With regard to the crucifixion, Lewis said “I believe that we are in some fashion saved by the crucifixion but as to the precise manner I cannot say.” I think if we have lost anything of value since the Renaissance it is the appreciation that “some things are mysteries.” We have forgotten how to understand MYSTERY. God rose prophet Samuel from the womb to chasten the wayward priesthood. But what does God say when he sends Samuel to choose a king (David) but (I Samuel 16) “man looketh on the outward appearance but the Lord looketh on the heart.” We should note with some amusement that when “We The People” demand a King “so as to be like other nations” the prophet Samuel advocates anarchy and warns that there are disadvantages associated with a king. Only when “We The People” demand a monarch does God send a prophet in search of one. Well, so much for the theory of “divine right of kings” and “anointed Tsars.”

“Orthodoxy” is ALWAYS shaped by heresy since the heresy proceeds it and the orthodoxy takes shape and emerges from disputes and dialogs. In the same fashion monotheism was shaped by animism and humanism/atheism have been shaped by monotheisms. We cannot perform our isometric exercises unless we have some strong wall to push against (and sometimes it is a “wailing wall.”)


Justine, your questions are all rhetorical and require no answer. You already know your answer. You repeatedly indicate that you dislike wordiness and yet you gravitate to one of the wordiest social networking sites and then attempt to engage the wordiest of all the participants (graduates of St. John’s Great Books Program.)

If you are truly comfortable with whatever it is that you believe or disbelieve then you would feel total indifference towards what anyone else does or does not believe.

Tell me, Justine, IF tomorrow the entire world were to totally agree with you and adopt all of your opinions and reject everything that you reject, would the world be a better place? Would global warming be reversed. Would heroin users stop injecting? Would prostitutes stop prostituting? Would molesters stop molesting. Would murderers stop killing?

Ah, but you see, this can never happen because the entire world can NEVER agree on any significant issue whether it be political, economic, medical, religious or constitutional.

The opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Only when you become totally indifferent to the foolishness of the world, Justine, will you convince me of your convictions. And it is NOT me that you need to convince (for I am indifferent) but only YOURSELF that you need to convince.

(But you are most welcome, Justine, to post as much and as often as you like in these tattered threads of mine!)


Justine, I really do not care what you think. You are a free person living in a free society. You may think/believe whatever you like or think nothing at all. I have no use for arguments because I know that there are 6.7 billion people on the planet (give or take a million) and I could never hope to convince even a million of those of anything of great significance. If I tried to speak to each of those 6 billion people for 5 seconds it would take 951 years (do the math.) So, given the fact that we have about 5000 years of written history and 10000 years of oral history, and there is no real agreement about anything of importance, therefore argument is only useful in trivial pursuits, e.g. to convince my family what to have for lunch or dinner. When the former Soviet Union dissolved (AFTER THREE GENERATIONS OF AN EXPERIMENT IN ATHEISM) people came running out of there anxious to become Orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witness and YES even HARE KRISHNA (the temple at Schermerhorn St. in Brooklyn had to hold Bhagavad-Gita lessons in Russian.) People need something to cling to to make them feel better whether it is some religions, books and a balance, Marxism or Tarot cards.

When I blog every day (since 1998) it is to exercise my mind. Think of it as mental push-ups and jumping-jacks. Every word that I have ever written since 1998 has not attracted the passing attention of more than 100,000 people which is more attention than many scholarly tracts of the 1940s received but is hardly a drop in the bucket.


Hmmm…. after some careful consideration, Justine, I think I have an answer. Justine, you must believe that there is something called TRUTH/TRUE (i.e. the word has meaning) and that speech or language (the WORD) is our main tool to access and convey TRUTH (aside from mathematics which is reserved for Hilbert, Godel, Einstein and their likes) and FURTHERMORE that argument is a method of arriving at agreement of what is true by means of speech or discourse. Of course, Justine, you appreciate the beauty of Occam’s Razor and so, the less said, the better. Perhaps SIN is the absence of TRUTH or something FALSE which masquerades as true (a wolf in sheep’s clothing or an angel of light which becomes a false Christ.) Now, Justine, perhaps you believe that the truth is accessible to you. Perhaps you even believe that you alone are in possession of the truth. Hence, sin would be disagreeing with you. So, Justine you have become a goddess of sorts and we should worship you for your wisdom. Oh, my dear, I am feeling a twinge of religion here which I suspect may anger my goddess.

Now Dostoevsky (in Brothers Karamazov) had one of his characters say “If God does not exist then all is permitted.” Well, obviously we humans exist and eat and drink, even if the universe is an accident of chaos. Now, if we eat and drink in moderation then we do not become obese and diabetic and we live our three score years and ten (mayhaps four score) with our share of sunny days and rainy days, our joys and sorrows. Hence, Dostoevsky was wrong (or rather his character was wrong.) Even in a Godless world of chance there are better and worse ways, moderation is usually the wiser choice, and excesses contain their own punishment of suffering in a kind of karmic Newton’s third law of actions and reactions.


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