The Psychology of Apologetics: Sin
In this article I will continue our examination of Christian apologetics from a psychological perspective. Here, I wish to look at the concept of sin, so central to Christianity, and how the teachings about sin work to convert, and then retain, people into the fundamentalist faith-system.
I will take my lead from C. S. Lewis. Lewis teaches a lot about sin over the course of his Mere Christianity (MC), The Problem of Pain (PP), and The Great Divorce. Lewis tells us that a sinless creature, such as we humans were before the Fall, would be perfectly and utterly selfless. He would be perfectly in tune with God and the will of God, and his own will would be entirely subordinated to God’s. Lewis describes this memorably: “…each soul [in heaven] will be eternally engaged in giving away to all the rest that which it receives. And as to God, we must remember that the soul is but a hollow that God fills. Its union with God is, almost by definition, a continual self-abandonment– an opening, an unveiling, a surrender, of itself. ” (PP, p.151)
Thus, Lewis tells us that a state of harmony with God is a state of utter selflessness, of perfect and continual abdication of the will. Thus it follows rather directly that the nature of our corruption, of our sin, is will-full-ness. Self-will, according to Lewis, is the original original sin. It is what got Lucifer kicked out of heaven – when he said, I will become like the Most High…. rather than, as Jesus said, “Thy will be done.” Self-will means to make the self the center of the self-rather than God. It is a wish to disengage from this endless cycle of self-giving, and thereby keep for the self and thereby expand the self. All that is created is good, Lewis teaches, but Man has corrupted his self and the world by putting otherwise natural, good things to selfish ends.
Lewis teaches that the pure Christian heart wants only and is satisfied only with God. Any other want or aim or desire or wish or even feeling is a perversion of something good. Our goal as fallen creatures is to become fully aware that only in God is our satisfaction to be found. To seek satisfaction anywhere else is to put that goal before God. This, too, is a form of corruption.
This is what sin is, according to Lewis. Now, even Lewis says that Christianity has nothing to say to someone who is not first convinced he is a sinner. So priority number one of the apologist is to accomplish just this. How does Lewis go about it?
I suggest he has three tactics. First, he defines sin broadly – so broadly everyone who has ever lived cannot help but qualify as a sinner. Secondly, he teaches that your deepest feelings of guilt and shame and failure and weakness are your truest feelings, the most accurate reflection of what you really are. Finally, he shows you what it would mean to be sinless, which I suggest involves a human psychologically impossible task, as well as a paradox. Thus, it necessarily follows that you cannot help yourself, you cannot stop sinning on your own.
Now, of course, Christians are unabashed in believing and teaching just these things: we all sin, and we cannot save ourselves. But Lewis, using the rhetoric of his apologetic, gets you to feel it and thereby brings you in a new emotional state: a feeling of helplessness. Feeling helpless, the prospective believer then has no choice, of course, but to accept the ministrations offered by the apologist – i.e., convert, accept Jesus, and be saved. So with this background, let me walk through these steps in turn.
Lewis’ teachings on what constitutes sin follow directly from the teachings of Jesus himself, e.g., Matthew 5:28. Sin includes, in other words, emotions. Certain emotions are themselves defined as sin, such as (here) lust and, in certain contexts, anger. Lewis’ contribution is to explain why this is so: such emotions are a reflection of the kind of creature one is. Which is to say, a wicked, corrupt, selfish one. Now, in our more sober moments, we realize pretty clearly that no one can control what they feel. We can influence our emotions, perhaps, but not dictate them. So, if we accept that sin includes what we feel, then, obviously, no one can escape being a sinner.
He also implicitly raises the bar. Jesus said we are to be “perfect”, and this is understood by fundamentalism to mean: no sinful thoughts or feelings (or behaviors), ever. To sin even once in life is worth eternal separation from God. So everyone deserves hell, on this view, because of emotions and thoughts that are not under voluntary control. A wider broadening of “sin” would be hard to imagine.
Going even further, Lewis offers a rather perverse theodicy. He suggests that suffering itself is sin, or at least the result of sin. After all, a true Christian, in harmony with God, is satisfied with God. Therefore, any suffering you feel is the result of wanting or experiencing something that is disrupting that blissful harmony that is yours for the asking. In other words, you are letting something matter to you more than your communion with God. It is taking God’s rightful place as the center of your thoughts. That is, of course, sin.
Now, fundamentalist Christians do not quite go so far as to teach that Christians will necessarily be happy or never face adversity; quite the contrary. But they are equally quite straightforward about their teaching that when one is in harmony with God, submitted to His will, one will experience unlimited peace and joy in the face of adversity. The implication here, then, is that if you fail to experience peace and joy in the face of adversity – that is, if you suffer – it is your fault, because you are sinning. Again, the definition is broadened – no one escapes being a sinner.
Lewis’ next move is to take this newly-acquired sense that sin really is universal and make it seem bad – really bad. Cosmically bad, in fact. He does this by appealing to the worst feelings you have ever had about yourself. He asserts: “But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one…” (PP, p.57). Here, he directs your focus to your worst feelings of guilt, shame, and failure, and tells you that this is the most true and accurate reflection of who and what you are: a corrupt, unregenerate sinner. It is your conscience functioning correctly, or at least partly so, and he moreover suggests that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I.e., you don’t really know how bad you are, yet. You just get glimpses of it in your worst moments. There is no irrational, unjustified, displaced, disproportionate, or neurotic guilt, for Lewis. Your worst self is your truest.
This can be powerfully persuasive. Everyone has experienced guilt and shame, as part of our psychological make-up as social animals. We are wired by evolution and our individual upbringings to care what others think of us and to care how we behave. Furthermore, (as mentioned in part two) if the psychoanalysts are right, as young children we have no sense of our self as being distinct from what we feel. Young children’s emotions are thought to have a raw, global, overwhelming quality, and thus they have a lot of trouble telling the difference between feeling bad and being bad. Learning to manage those negative emotions that are a ubiquitous part of life is the hard-won core of emotional health. Only with maturity can we get some distance from painful feelings and can thus say, “I may feel bad because of guilt or anger right now, but it is not all of who I am”.
Lewis is trying to re-obliterate that distinction, and erode the many layers of defense mechanisms we all employ to contain pain, sadness, guilt, anger, and shame. He seeks to tap in to those reservoirs, and thus teaches explicitly that there is no difference between your feelings and your very being. Since we all spent our youngest, formative years experiencing life that way anyway, he is able to succeed at this. We are all too ready to believe it.
So, by now Lewis has us convinced we are pervasively sinful and, furthermore, our sin is far deeper than we imagine – cosmically bad, in fact. Lewis pulls no punches in this: he says we are a “horror to God.” One the believer has accepted these “truths” about himself, the way is paved for Lewis’ coup de grace, the picture he paints of our goal, the sinless life. It involves the paradox of selflessness.
The goal of sinlessness/selflessness
I have already laid out in part two of this series the paradox of submission of the will – i.e., that one must assert the will in order to deny it – so I will not repeat that here, and will instead only note that that paradox would have to be solved in order for a believer to really, truly submit his will in the way that is required of him. In addition to this, the believer is then set with another obstacle in his goal of restoring his harmony with God. For, again, Christianity teaches that to seek or want anything else, other than God, is part of sin. Again, Lewis: “Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. …God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (MC, p.54). The implications here are sweeping: in the end, human need itself is defined as sin. To want to be loved, to want friendship, or security, or grandchildren, or respect, or sex, or to be remembered, or not to be lonely – any of the thousands of things human beings want that does not have God as its object – all of it is sin. We are to want only God, to seek our satisfaction only in God. Effectively, we are thus instructed so cease to want, and content ourselves with our relationship with God. But it is of course impossible to cease to want. And that is exactly the point.
Sin is thus shown to be a terrifying problem with no solution, or at least no solution the believer can accomplish by himself. He has finally, in the end, been brought into a state of helplessness. And helplessness is, I believe, key to the fundamentalist Christian schema. If the apologist has done his job, then someone following the rhetoric this far will have had his room to maneuver narrowed down to a single point, the singularity of the fundamentalist Christian psychology. He has but one choice before him: submit, or rebel. His critical thought and autonomy have been undermined, he “sees” for himself the “horror” that he is, and feels his helplessness to better himself by any effort of his own. Conviction of his sin has utterly vanquished him.