Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Return of Sin

(Lake Michigan sunset, St Joseph, Michigan)

A long time ago clinical psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote a book called Whatever Became of Sin? I remember reading it when I was in seminary.

Well, it's back. A vast majority of people in America believe in sin, or something very close to sin.
The biblical Greek word for sin, hamartano, means "to miss the mark." The idea is that there is a moral target to aim at. To miss the target is to "sin."

For example, someone who loots and burns buildings and robs innocent people of their means of income is sinning. There's a moral target out there, and they have missed it.

Or, for example, the police officer who killed George Floyd, in the act of doing so, sinned. He missed the moral point.

What is interesting to me is that people who believe, as I do, that Thou shalt not loot and burn buildings for non-redemptive purposes is wrong, and who believe Thou shalt not murder is morally wrong, believe such things are wrong, objectively.

That is, they seem to believe that these moral targets are true for all persons, and that no one should engage in them, and that those who do should be tried and punished. That is, they believe in some objective standard of justice. (One very good book to understand "justice" is Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, by Harvard jurisprudential professor Michael Sandel.)

An "objective truth" is a truth that, if true, is true for everyone, whether they believe in it or not. An example of an objective truth is Abraham Lincoln was once President of the United States. That statement, if true (which it is), is true for everyone.

So, the belief that Racism is wrong is a moral claim that, if true, is true for everyone. It's a target all should aim their hearts and minds and behaviors toward.

What's interesting here is that, in America, most people are moral relativists. That is, they do not believe objective moral values exist. But if they protest and hold signs saying Racism is wrong, then they tacitly reveal their true belief in objective moral values. They believe there is no moral target for all to aim at, while lifting up signs that identify the moral target all should aim at. Some accuse evangelical Christians of being dogmatic, and are themselves dogmatic about this. (This drives philosophers like myself crazy!)

If moral relativism is true, if objective moral values do not exist, then "right" and "wrong" are subjective values. They are like personal tastes. So, if you think Racism is not wrong, and I am a moral relativist who believes moral values can be "right for me but wrong for you," then I cannot hold you morally responsible for your affirmation of racism.

But you, dear reader, affirm the moral claim Racism is wrong. You hold racism to be wrong universally. It functions like a commandment for you.

Hence, the return of sin. 

Objective moral values find no epistemic warrant outside the existence of God. Anyone who thinks otherwise is, at best, a Platonist (moral values have objective ontological status), and, at worst, morally incoherent. (See here.)