One of the tasks associated with our move into a smaller home has been downsizing our possessions. I’m not sure I did too well with that, as there are still too many boxes labeled "basement," which probably could have been given away, recycled or trashed. But I did downsize my library by about half, parting with books that have found a loving home on the shelves of friends or will soon appear on the tables at the next library book sale.
A book staring at me from the discard pile did cause me to pause for a moment at its title: "Whatever Became of Sin?" by psychiatrist Karl Menninger, and its query has been nagging at me for weeks. Sin, according to Merriam-Webster, is "an offense against religious or moral law, or an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible." Most world religions have some concept of sin, and much of what we recognize as the law of our land has a basis in what has historically been identified as sin, particularly defined by the last five of the 10 commandments (murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness).
How are sins classified? Within the Christian framework, a Greek monastic theologian, Evagrius of Pontus, created a list of eight offenses, and in the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great made an adjustment to Evagrius’ list, combining a couple of the sins and adding envy to pride, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. Theologically, these are known as the seven deadly sins.
We may not like using the word sin in current day terminology, instead choosing less indicting words such as shortcomings, moral failure, mistake, oversight, indiscretion, slip-up, hiccup, lapse in judgment or (my favorite) foible, a minor weakness or eccentricity in someone’s character. Whatever did become of sin, Dr. Menninger? A victim of euphemisms?
Moving from religion into money and politics, one potential field where sin and temptation is present. I’ve been watching the climb of the stock market with fascination and concern in recent weeks. How much higher can it go before it falls? Robert Reich warns: "… but the profits will stop, because there won’t be enough people with enough money to buy all the goods and services corporations can produce. And when the music stops, the stock market will crash. And what will the oligarchs do then?"
Meanwhile, Reich reminds us, one out of five American kids are in poverty. Most workers haven’t had a raise in 35 years, with no job security and no unemployment benefits. Is a booming economy really of benefit to all? Or is there a whiff of gluttony, lust or greed?
It’s easy to look to the news cycle for areas of criticism, but my pondering has pointed the finger at my own heart as well, nudged by words about eyes, logs and specks. As a minor yet troubling example, even when we put an offer in on a house we could afford and manage as we move deeper into our golden years, I kept looking at the houses listed on Zillow, sometimes with a "I wish we could have gotten that one" sigh. Since being introduced to Pinterest, I’ve looked at hundreds of images of kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and home offices — if only we had that window, that space, that view. My casual comment, "Pinterest is the devil" may have more truth to it than I recognized. Envy and greed at work?
I found William B. Bradshaw’s words to be convicting, not just of our culture but of myself as well: "Little by little we have become accustomed to, and stopped finding fault with, sin — our own and the sin of others. We as a society do what we want, find ways to justify what we are doing and ignore the consequences."
It’s tempting to discredit the concept of sin as old-fashioned and out-of-touch, but Bradshaw calls us to account by his last word: consequences. Just as loving actions have consequences, so too do pride, gluttony, envy, lust, anger, greed and sloth, both to ourselves and others. As for Menninger’s question? I’m looking in the mirror to see what’s in my eye.
JoAnn Shade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org