Adler on Sin

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Question: I know that it is wrong to steal, to lie, to murder. What does it add to my sense of right and wrong to say that acts are sins? It just seems to give me an unwholesome sense of guilt and dread. Is “sin” an obsolete term in this day and age?

Dr. Adler: SIN IS ESSENTIALLY NOT A LEGAL OR MORAL TERM. It is a religious term and refers to man’s offense against God. It has no meaning apart from the awareness of God’s holiness and majesty. Where this awareness is lacking, there is no sense of sin, no matter what a person may do or fail to do. The state of sin is essentially man’s separation from God. The act of sin is one of disobedience and rebellion in which man turns away from God. Man opposes God’s will with his own. Elements of perverse will and pride are present as man puts himself and his desires at the center of things, instead of God.

These essential elements of sin are brought out dramatically in the Biblical story of Adam’s sin. Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit not only because it looks so good, but because the serpent has promised that eating it will make them equal to God. Perverse pride and desire motivate this original act of disobedience and rebellion against the divine command.

Augustine reveals further the inner motivations behind sin. He tells us in his Confessions how he stole pears when he was a boy simply for the joy of stealing. It was not the taste of the pears but the taste of the sin — “the thrill of acting against God’s law” — that delighted him. This is a good example of the perverse desire that underlies the act of sin.

But sin is not only manifested in certain acts that are forbidden by divine command. Sin also appears in attitudes and dispositions and feelings. Lust and hate are sins, as well as adultery and murder. And in the traditional Christian view, despair and chronic boredom-unaccompanied by any vicious act-are serious sins. They are expressions of man’s separation from God, as the ultimate good, meaning, and end of human existence.

Obviously, then, religious wrong-sin-is not the same as legal wrong-crime. The civil law deals only with offenses against men or society. It is concerned only with overt acts, not with inner attitudes or the direction of a person’s whole life. Although the content of some sins is the same as that of some crimes (murder, adultery, and theft, for instance), many sins are not crimes at all (idolatry, for instance).

The reason we associate crime and sin is that both religion and law involve precepts of morality. But moral wrong is not exactly the same as sin. Moral knowledge and responsibility are possible apart from religious belief and the sense of sin. From a purely natural viewpoint, when man transgresses the moral law — in murder, theft, etc. — he is doing wrong and he is departing from the natural order of things.

In Judaism and Christianity, however, the breaking of the moral law is also a sin. The transgression of the moral law is also a transgression of the divine law. The offense against man is an offense against God. It is a demonstration of irreverence, apostasy, and disobedience to God. “I have sinned against heaven and before thee,” says the prodigal son to his father. This expresses perfectly the attitude of the religious man toward his own wrongdoing.

We may say, then, that all violations of the moral law are sins, but they are so only as expressions of man’s turning away from God. Sin comprises more than moral offenses, for despair and boredom are sins apart from any evil deed. And holiness consists in something more than the perfect observance of the moral law. Pascal observes that the more righteous a religious man is the more he considers himself a sinner. He is the one who is most keenly aware of how far away he is from perfect holiness.

A vivid instance of this is presented in the Book of Isaiah, where the prophet feels himself utterly unworthy and unclean in the presence of the divine holiness. This is a deeper meaning of sin than that ascribed to individual acts and attitudes. We may call it the sin of human status, of man’s worthlessness when compared with God.

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