We often hear the claim, sometimes in homilies, that contemporary culture has lost a sense of sin. But what if it’s not so much the loss of the idea of sin, but the loss of the idea of forgiveness that we witness all around?
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – famous for his oft-quoted phrase ‘God is dead’ – foresaw one of the consequences of the loss of the sense of God in a culture. He wrote that as a result of the ‘death’ of God as he put it, people would be left with the same sense of shame and sin aroused by Christianity, but be unable to do anything about it.
Cut off from the embrace of an all-loving God and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, sin and shame have the final word and there is no space for forgiveness and redemption.
We see this most pronounced on social media. A politician who is tipped for high office, for example, would do well to delete his or her past posts on Twitter or Facebook lest one is resurrected to be used to pin some previously unknown misdemeanour on the individual judged to be guilty.
The same is true for virtually everyone in public life who face having every comment or utterance poured over by hoards of online archeologists.
During the summer England cricketer Ollie Robinson issued a grovelling apology for frankly revolting tweets of a sexist and racist nature that he had made. The tabloids had obviously mined his feed and helpfully decided to break the story on the same day as Mr Robinson made his first appearance for England. The storm around his terrible tweets took no account whatsoever of the fact that he was a teenager at the time. No mercy was shown and his critics certainly weren’t buying the excuse that teenagers sometimes do stupid and offensive things that they regret as they mature.
People should apologise and show remorse for past actions, but as a society and as a people we should also have a sense that sins can be forgiven.
It’s also increasingly true that the sense of sin doesn’t really vanish, a culture just changes the goalposts about what is sinful. Sins of a sexual nature have decidedly taken a backseat in Ireland – anyone expressing the view that the ideal place for sex is within marriage (entirely uncontroversial only a short time ago) will quickly find themselves a laughing stock. Such a person would be lucky not to have their worldview extensively excavated on Liveline – a modern form of having one’s name read from the altar.
Newer categories of sin have taken over. There is, for example, an advertisement running almost constantly on radio at the moment which has the voiceover artist exclaim in stark terms that “binning is sinning” in a bid to persuade those less assiduous souls when it comes to recycling of the errors of their ways.
Restaurant menus now also come complete with calorie counts to ensure that people out for a well-deserved dinner don’t enjoy themselves too much. And, carbon footprints are also on the way to let unsuspecting diners know just how much trouble their meal is causing the planet.
The sense of sin cuts across all times and cultures – different cultures just change what they view as sinful. The same is true about religion: people don’t stop being religious, they just change what they’re religious about and God is no longer in fashion in many contemporary western cultures. And if Nietzsche is right – about this at least – then we are storing up a lot of sin and shame with no avenue for redemption.