In 1973 psychiatrist Karl Menninger published a book with the title, Whatever Became of Sin? His point was that sociology and psychology were beginning to avoid terms like “evil,” or “immorality,” and “wrongdoing.” Menninger then detailed how the theological notion of sin became the legal idea of crime and then slid further from its true meaning and became nothing more than the psychological category of sickness.
Now, it’s gone even further.
We’re not sinners at all anymore. As many have observed, we’re just “mistakers.”
And we’re even starting to lose that.
Lately, we don’t even want to call a sin a mistake. We want to turn everything we do into a virtue. So lust becomes “sensuality,” and anger just means being honest with your emotions.
Even when we apologize, we say things like, “I’m sorry you were offended at what I said or did.” No admittance that we did anything wrong – just sorry that the other person wasn’t mature enough to handle it.
The latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children went all the way and made it official. They removed the word completely. They don’t even have the word “sin” in the dictionary anymore.
As a result, morals are seen as almost entirely relative. There are no absolutes when it comes to right or wrong. If it doesn’t hurt anybody else, and it makes you happy, then it’s okay. Morality has become a personal choice. It’s personal, private, subjective, and a matter of personal decision or opinion.
Consider the following interview with Nick Cassavetes, the director of such films as “The Notebook.” His latest film, “Yellow,” debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s about an incestuous relationship between a brother and a sister. Speaking of incest, Cassavetes offered these thoughts:
“I’m not saying this is an absolute but in a way, if you’re not having kids – who gives a damn? Love who you want. Isn’t that what we say? Gay marriage – love who you want?
“If it’s your brother or sister it’s super weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody, except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.
“This whole movie is about judgment, and lack of it, and doing what you want. Who gives a sh*t if people judge you?”
This mindset was documented in the massive study of emerging adults, meaning people between the ages of 18 and 23, by sociologist Christian Smith. He found that a relativistic attitude marks six out of ten (60 percent) emerging adults.
They said morality is a personal choice, “entirely a matter of individual decision. Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion....” One of out every three said that they didn’t even know what makes anything right or wrong.
Here it is in their own words:
“I have never heard anybody else that has anything like it [my moral outlook] and I just don’t know where it came from. Like just kinda things that I thought up, that I decided was right for me.”
“What’s a moral rule, though? A personal thing? Well then I would say that sometimes breaking a moral rule might be all right, depending on the situation.”
“Wrong are the things that change things for way worse than they were before – and I kinda think again it’s totally relative to the person, it depends on where you wanna go and what you wanna do.”
“I don’t think lying is wrong necessarily. It’s life. People lie. That’s my view on the whole thing. Everyone’s done it. It’s not going to go away.”
“I will do what I can to get ahead in this world while I’m here.”
“I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. Because I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel. That’s where my decisions come from. From me. My decisions come from inside of me.”
It brings to mind an older study, conducted by sociologist Robert Bellah, which featured an interview with a woman named Sheila, who said “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s ‘Sheilaism.’
...Just my own little voice.”
James Emery White
Karl Menninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973).
“Is it a sin? Christian words deleted from Oxford dictionary,” James Tozer, Daily Mail, December 7, 2008, read online.
“'The Notebook' director Nick Cassavetes says of incest: 'Who gives a damn?'”, Fox News, September 10, 2012, read online.
“Can sex between brothers and sisters ever be normal?,” Dr. Keith Ablow, Fox News, September 11, 2012, read online.
Christian Smith, et al., Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.