Bill Long 1/29/05
John Donne, Sin and the 21st Century
In 1973 the world-renowned psychologist Karl Menninger made headlines by writing the book Whatever Became of Sin? It might be more accurate to say that he made "sermon headlines" by this title, since I remember countless preachers from those days making reference to Menninger, even though the reaction of the secular press to the book was tepid. Nevertheless, his point was that public discourse about sin, which was so much a part of our nation's heritage, had seemingly fallen out of vogue, and that this probably contributed to a growing sense of personal irresponsibility in the 1960s and early 1970s.
For example (and this is my example), one could hardly imagine Bill Clinton issuing the following proclamation, which actually was issued by Abraham Lincoln:
"It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon."
This kind of sentiment, much less the language, seems out of touch with America. Just to show that I am an equal-opportunity Presidential critic, could one imagine the George Bush of the Presidential debates of 2004, where he couldn't imagine a mistake he had made in the previous four years of governing, saying those bolded words?
Sin in America
Just as freedom of religion and freedom of economic opportunity were the cornerstones of early European settlement of America, so the early settlers also brought with them a Puritan doctrine of sin which held that people ("man" in those days) was selfish, separated from God and was probably going to hell unless he owned up to that sin in humble repentance and asked for divine forgiveness. Jonathan Edwards' over-excerpted 1741 sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" (Just think, he was a visiting preacher that morning, i.e., he wasn't in his Northhamption pulpit, but was down in Northern Connecticut. Upbeat topic, don't you think?) at least has the virtue of pointing to a vigorous doctrine of sin which was characteristic of pre-Revolutionary, pre-Enlightenment American preaching.
Sin, however, began to fall on hard times in America in the early 19th century. It wasn't that people stopped sinning, in the Puritan definition of the term; it was just that people didn't seem to be as bothered about it as much anymore. Optimistic expansion plans, mindless promotion of western towns, gimmicks and schemes, manifest destiny and making the most of opportunity became the watchwords of the century. Revival preaching from Cane Ridge KY to Yale University in the early 19th century focused more on human ability to respond to the grace of God than on human helplessness before a punishing deity. Sin was there, to be sure, but it was, like the Indians, a problem that could be tamed.
But still there was a strong undercurrent of sin and guilt in American theology and preaching. After all, sin was the preacher's bread and butter or meat and potatoes. If people stopped believing in sin, they might not need to come to church to confess their sins; they might not need to pay a tithe; they might not support the ministry of a church and the preacher might be out of a job. Thus, Protestant ministers had a great interest in keeping alive the doctrine of sin. And, God be praised, the Catholics then came in and helped things out. Oh, you could never have gotten a Protestant preacher to admit around the mid-nineteenth century that the Catholic invasion of America (as they considered it then) was a sign of divine blessing. But, just think about it. The Catholics brought in such a load of guilt and sin that, had Protestant preachers really thought about it, they should have been sending crates of communion wine in gratitude to Father McShane or Father O'Brien.
When Protestants became a little wimpy on the doctrine of sin in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they could rely on their Catholic brethren to really zing the parishoners. Even today, in 2005, you can tell a "good Catholic." They go to mass, revere the priest, support the social and evangelistic mission of the church, and have a brooding sense of guilt and duty in them. Thus, in a way that no one could have imagined, Catholic and Protestant clergy helped keep the doctrine of sin alive well into the twentieth century, even as the economic and technological engine of America was increasingly secularized. That is, God didn't invent machines. God didn't lay railroad tracks. We did. We, secular people, did.
But it was really not until the 1970s that it is safe to say that America abandoned sin. Oh, we still believe in it in pockets of our culture. And, we would be the first to admit that we "make mistakes" and even can be downright assholes on occasion. But, sin is no longer a topic that is preached on or taught. It doesn't attract members to congregations and it doesn't keep them there. It flies pretty directly in the fact of the upbeat message that we must inculcate in the young in order to keep the economic engine of America going. Sin has no place.
Take that back. It has a place in ritualized contexts where we can all admit we are sinners but not take the words seriously. For example, the most popular Christian hymn in secular assemblies today is "Amazing Grace." We can all sing "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me," because we are all singing it and we know that, at worst, we are respectable wretches.
But this essay has to make it eventually to John Donne and "unsinning." Go on to the next mini-essay for that.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long