Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 16
Loss of Sin Understanding
In this lesson, you will gain a deeper understanding of the concept of sin from both Old and New Testament perspectives, learn about the theological and cultural shifts that have contributed to the loss of sin understanding, and explore the implications of this loss on Christian doctrine and morality. Furthermore, you will be equipped with approaches and practical steps to reintroduce the concept of sin in teaching and preaching, emphasizing the importance of addressing this issue in both the church and individual believers' lives.
Loss of Sin Understanding
NT730-16: Loss of Sin Understanding
I. Introduction to the Loss of Sin Understanding
A. Context and Importance of the Topic
B. Theological and Cultural Shifts
II. The Biblical Concept of Sin
A. Old Testament Perspectives
B. New Testament Perspectives
III. Implications of Losing the Understanding of Sin
A. Effects on Christian Doctrine
B. Moral and Spiritual Consequences
IV. Recovering the Understanding of Sin
A. Approaches to Reintroduce Sin as a Concept
B. Practical Steps for Teaching and Preaching
V. Conclusion and Application
A. Importance of Addressing the Loss of Sin Understanding
B. The Role of the Church and Individual Believers
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This course of lessons that we are recording on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity.
Our fifth topic is the question whatever became of sin in our therapeutic revolution that is still contemporary in our culture today. One of the issues of American culture, as we’ve already hinted, is that you didn’t have war inside America. You now have it because of the terrorists and that’s a new phase of American history and American culture, but you were preserved from fighting overseas by not having the war on your own doorstep. And the consequence of that is there’s been a much greater indulgence of American culture, both because of its great wealth, but also because of its absence of living in any underground situation. But it’s the underground man that Dostoyevsky indicates is the person who has bigger eyes to see what’s going on around. And there’s been no underground resistance in America. And that’s why you have been much more prone for various other reasons to narcissism and also the therapeutic revolution, which is, in a sense, a narcissistic revolution as well.
And so that’s what we want to look at, and especially how people like Karl Menninger, who himself as a psychiatrist was asking the question in 1973 whatever became of sin. And the answer is that sin has been seduced or buried by a psychoanalytical culture. He was a Presbyterian and he had a Christian background, but he was a bit fuzzy about his faith. And the same could be said of the Niebuhrs in New York that they were also, though less seduced, accepting the culture in which they lived and trying to say with their attitude of Christ and culture do we have an option as to what our perspective is. Is it Christ against culture? Is it Christ with culture? Is it Christ in culture? All those different perspectives were all very much a severe compromise because, again, they had not suffered in the underground. They were not doing what happened to their own friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in his determination to return to Germany, was going against culture in a heavy, heavy way, to the point of martyrdom. And the change that took place in him was not what he learnt at the Seminary of New York, but what he learnt down in the black area. And it was in a black church that he was soundly converted, not by Niebuhr, but by a black pastor. That was the contrast.
Well, as I say, we as Christians in North America have been much more blinded by the therapeutic culture than we realise: it’s profoundly important in our background. At the same time, there were missionaries returning like Frank Lake from India who realised as a psychiatrist that the pastors needed education in understanding more about the emotional life. And again, this goes back to the problem that the evangelical faith has been hypercognitive in the Enlightenment culture that it was reared and flourished in. So what was Menninger saying? He was saying the same thing as Frank Lake and that is that the pastors of our churches are demoralised in their ministry because they’re not really understanding enough the soul of their parishioners.
I found the same thing happening in Brazil, where their strong culture of personal [inaudible 00:05:17] means that they’re always very social, very friendly with each other. And so it’s a culture that breeds, again, a ministry that is psychotherapeutic. And to the point that there was a crisis towards the end of the 1990s when it looked as if the psychotherapist, as a member of the church, was a much smarter pastor than the pastor because they were aware of all the nuances of the emotional life at a level that most pastors were totally ignorant of. And so the pastoral role has been very vulnerable to being discredited as a result in both America as well as especially in Brazil.
Menninger, as he looked at what was demoralising the pastoral ministry, said it’s first the loss of nerve. He didn’t diagnose further what he meant by this, but basically what is has meant for many pastors is that they’re haunted by bad memories of their father. In fact, a Harvard psychiatrist later was to talk about Harvard students as being like the wandering Ishmael: they have no roots; they have little foundation for their life. It’s because they haven’t been fathered. And as I think of this picture of not being fathered and having the shelter of a good father, I think of what I saw when I visited the Sahara Desert for the first time, that in the sand dunes of the Sahara wherever you get an outcrop of rock that is a shelter from the shifting sand dunes and that rock goes deep enough to the water table below it, you’ll get a little oasis. Our childhood should be like an oasis in shifting sands of a desert landscape that we’ve been sheltered by a good father. But to be fatherless is a huge problem. And that doesn’t meant to say that your father died early, but that his words keep on cursing you to this day.
I have known famous preachers that you know of—and I won’t name them—internationally, who because their father said oh, you’re going to be a pastor; that’s no profession. You should be like me: a top surgeon or a top nuclear physicist or a top engineer. That’s what is a good profession… And that’s haunted those who’ve gone into the Church in a very, very big way. And so the result is then that so often we don’t realise that the wounds of a child are a tyranny. In fact, they’re like a curse. And I think I mentioned before that a friend of mine as a Red Cross doctor discovered that a witchdoctor can only curse those of his own tribe. He can only give a curse on an extended family relationship. And many of us have grown up cursed and need to be liberated from that curse that has resulted in not only a failure of nerve to be myself, but a loss of direction as to where I should go. Where am I going? That was the second question that Menninger asked.
And of course, we know that there are other reasons for a loss of direction and one is multiple choice, that young people today have never had more opportunities for making a choice of career than ever in the history of man and never were they more paralysed as to what choice they should make. In my generation, as children we would count the prune stones round the plate and give an identity to each prune stone: tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, where does it stop? And where it stops, I’ll be that. It was quite arbitrary and it was spontaneous. But today, you are paralysed by making a choice. And so the result is that you can be a nervous wreck just psychoanalysing your motives and your decisions and all those kinds of things.
And of course, the sad thing for many pastors is the wearing of the clerical collar. Fortunately, most people are now getting rid of the clerical collar. But I remember reading a humorous article about the rise of the clerical collar around your neck, that it chokes your throat so that you’re not speaking normally, you’re speaking in an artificial voice. That’s the first phenomenon: you have an abnormal way of speaking which is not that that you have at home, but now you’re in the Church. But then it rises more when it goes over your nose and people don’t understand what you’re talking about. And then when, of course, it grows over your eyes, then you’re totally clueless as to what’s going on all around you. And so you can make a lot of humour about the collar. But you can see that people today who still insist on wearing it, they obviously have some kind of inferiority complex to wear it.
Menninger says an erosion was taking place of morality in the culture. Well, that’s certainly clear. But it’s not so much the loss of morality as the loss of morale in the Christian ministry, that people are finding that the task of keeping the congregation together is increasingly more complex. I remember, and this was at least 20 years ago, I was in Denmark speaking to the national convention of Baptist pastors, and yes, it must have been about 15 years ago because I was then about 79. And they looked at me and they said how in the world are you still going around ministering? And of course, I was amazed that they should be amazed about me. They said don’t you realise that most of us as Danish pastors are burnt out by the age of 50? And here you are, two decades on, or perhaps if I was to talk to them today we’d be four decades further on, saying why in the world are you no burnt out? And of course, the reason is their own insecurity in the face of secularism. They have no answer for it. And the old traditional way of acting and behaving is just making no sense whatever. So there s a big crisis in organised religion today as a result of these issues.
But of course, what is so important about the therapeutic culture that we’re living with today is it’s so associated with the rise of the psychological self, which was the first phase of describing this after the war. And it was a wonderful phase to begin with because it was associated with people like Winnicott and John Bowlby in England. And they had faced the bombing of London and so the children that were evacuated was a study that they began to make and that study indicated that the breaking of the bonds of a child by the evacuation of children from their parents was having huge psychological consequences in British culture. And it’s that culture, of course, that C.S. Lewis was involved in because three young children were landed on the doorstep of two bachelors. And bachelor dons at Oxford are rather curious creatures to begin with, but for these small children to be landed on them meant that they were quite challenged. And that’s the product of Narnia tales: how you entertain children by the magic of going through the wardrobe. It’s really a comical ending because Wheaton decided that in the Lewis mania that we have in American today that the best prospect for knowing Lewis was to have one of his wardrobes. And so they have it in their museum. And then, of course, Westmont, not to be outdone, they got hold of another wardrobe. And so now there’s a competition as to which wardrobe did the Narnia children go through: the one at Wheaton or the one at Westmont. Well, I tell you all that’s wacky as far as I’m concerned.
But much more important than the original understanding of the human emotions that the breaking of bonds has upon our life, which is fundamentally important for all of us to have, was then to intensify that the therapeutic culture explains everything. And in explaining everything, it overlooked that it wasn’t explaining narcissism. Because this intensification of looking at myself subjectively means that I become imprisoned to the self for the sake of the self. I’m no different from Dante’s vision of Satan as frozen in a frozen lake. So our culture of narcissism is just that: it’s very selfish; it’s very self-centred, very self-absorbed. And of course, all of this creates a huge loss of transcendence. Now what is meaningful is therapy. Now what is meaningful is having a therapist. And I remember there was a generation not so long ago when our students, if they were asked but haven’t you got a therapist? There must be something odd about you if you don’t have a therapist. It became so natural. And so there was a perceptive psychiatrist or philosopher of psychiatry Philip Rieff, who indicted what he called the therapeutic revolution. This book is a book that is, along with Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, two of the great books that indict this situation in our culture.
The result then of the dominance of psychotherapy and the psychoanalytical is that, of course, it totally eclipsed any understanding of sin and God. Now sin was viewed in a very different way. Sin becomes a crime of society. Sin is now something for the police and the government to take charge of. There’s an abdication of it happening in the family. And it’s one of the great tragedies of our time that I’ve seen a pastor call the police because there was a troublesome member in the church. That poor, troublesome member was probably somebody who was having mental health problems and should be treated in terms of mental health. But the abdication of the pastoral role to troublesome people is like the abdication of parents who also sometimes have called the police to deal with their domestic quarrels.
When my wife was herself very ill in the hospital, I was waiting for her to be attended to and there was a young man who was brought in in chains. She was manacled. And what was the problem? She was high on drugs. And so I said to the policeman this must be a terrible waste of your time when you’re also having to deal with serious crime. And he said yes, we reckon in the police force—and this was seven years ago—that a third of our duties are a waste of effort; they shouldn’t be handled by us at all. But this is what’s happened in our mentally sick society, or our drug addicted society, that there’s always been the buck passed on to somebody else. So sin as a crime is, again, another source of confusion that we’re facing in our situation today.
On the other hand, Menninger observed that sin has also been turned into a symptom. It’s a symptom that’s directed towards mental health or a symptom that’s directed towards crime. It’s something that the courts can’t deal with because it’s not appropriate for the courts to deal with. And so we also tend to find that each profession will treat mental illnesses differently. If a doctor’s involved, then it’s an illness. It’s not sin. If you’re talking to a psychiatrist, it’s a neurological problem. It’s not sin. And so we begin to realise that one of the issues that we’re facing today is what are the boundaries that how we are dealing with the real reality of sin over against all these other phenomena that are by-products of a life or a society that is sinful.
We are realising, of course, too, that sin is so often a collective irresponsibility, that there’s an awareness that as intrinsically relational human beings there’s very much more to the whole issue of what one psychiatrist has called groupthink: that we have a desperate drive for consensus and because of this drive for consensus people are just simply imitating others in a kind of collective irresponsibility.