Question of the Day: Immorality vs Sin

Assume that even in a Godless world, there is such a thing as immoral acts: What is the difference between an immoral act and a sinful act?

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21 Responses to Question of the Day: Immorality vs Sin

  1. Can I take my summer online class first and then get back to you on this?

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  2. Mina says:

    Is sin even a word in a godless world? I would think immorality is based on that which strays from ethical and acceptable behavior in a society, which may make morality that which a society defines (a relative morality).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree that sin would not arise in a world without God. But let’s assume that there is such a thing in a Godless world as objective morality, as C. S. Lewis asserts in The Abolition of Man. So what’s the difference between an evil act and a sinful act?

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      • Mina says:

        Forgive me, I have not yet read “the Abolition of Man”, but if it does not hinder the mental exercise, I would like to contemplate on this issue.

        To be quite honest, I never really differentiated between evil and sin. But I would imagine if there would be objective morality in a godless world, it has to come through an agreed upon world leader or leading council. Thus any evil or sinful act has consequences as defined by this leading rule.

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      • Michael Bauman says:

        In a Godless world there is no objective morality and no real evil. We see that attitude all around us. Power becomes the measure of goodness.

        Read Nietzsche lately?

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    • Fr Kimmel,

      The distinction between immoral and sinful is indeed a challenging question to answer. Whoever is perceived to wield deadly power shapes, if not controls, what is “sinful”in the sense of acceptability.

      Despots have power to doom others to death: Herod had John the Baptist beheaded. The “Dear Leader” of North Korea has power to execute political enemies by ravaging dogs. None in that sphere of influence dare call this judgment sinful or even immoral without risking severe consequences.

      Anarchy effectively blurs real distinction between an immoral act and a sinful act. In religiously permeated societies, immorality may seem a lesser offense than a sinful act, yet the outcome for offending can be deadly for either. Grace is missing. So is any notion of saving sovereignty and lived gratitude.

      –John

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  3. Michael Bauman says:

    In a Godless world there is no sin and morality becomes quite Epicurian: if it feels good it’s OK. If it doesn’t don’t do it.

    Morals have no ontological quality. Sin is ontological in its essence and involves the whole person from the deep core of our being to the tips of the hairs on our head thus God is aware of each hair.

    Morality passes quite easily into nothingness.
    Sin actively leads in that direction.

    Each act of repentance brings us a bit out of that into reality.

    Morality, in and of itself, allows us to think of ourselves as “good people” who have no need of repentance.

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  4. jrj1701 says:

    Sin is missing the mark, and there are few that hit it, immorality is a visible violation of a code of ethics. The more complex the code the more chance I have of violating it and thus being deemed immoral. Yet with sin, who sets the mark, and if there is no mark set, then how can I miss it???

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      Or as our President said when asked how he defined sin he said it was violating his own values.

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      • jrj1701 says:

        Therein lies the rub. In a godless world each individual sets his own mark to hit, and that target will be determined upon the ambition of the individual.

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        • I think what he’s saying, judging by his Nietzsche comment, is every individual is his own god any way.

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          • jrj1701 says:

            Most likely, yet there are folks that must have somebody else to be their god, and there are the ambitious that will gladly fill that role. In a godless world, there would be those that follow and those that will lead, and the leaders will fight among themselves, throwing their followers at each other, sorta like what we have today.

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  5. By etymology, “sin” is a term taken from archery; it means, as jrj1701 points out, “missing the target”. So we can still speak of sin in a godless world, if we can still conceive of a “target” for human existence there. I think a good example of this would be Buddhism, in which there is no god, but there are skillful and unskillful acts. Buddhism is by no means “epicurean”, in the sense that Michael Bauman said, above— “if it feels good it’s ok; if it doesn’t don’t do it”. Buddhism is quite clear about what’s skillful and what’s unskillful, but this is based not on any external creator or rule-maker, but on a very clear perception of the nature of the mind and of things as they are. What makes acts “skillful” or not is whether they’re based on insight or on delusion. The goal is health, peace, compassion, wholeness, and ultimately a state beyond even these. There are six hells, but the interesting thing is the six corresponding heavens aren’t ultimately any less delusional. What’s needed is insight, not ecstasy; wisdom, not “feelgood”.

    If, on the other hand, you live in a godded world (can i make up that term?), then the question is whether the god of your world provides a list of rules (which may be more, or less arbitrary) and some system of reward and punishment for keeping or not keeping them. There, the “target” you could miss would be something like “perfection” or perhaps “righteousness”, and “sin” would be breaking the rules and failing to attain to that perfection or righteousness. In Protestantism it is said that no amount of rule-keeping will make you righteous, and that you can’t possibly keep all the burdensome rules anyway, but Jesus kept them for you and his righteousness or perfection is imputed to you. Thus you can relax a bit, maybe. But the basic paradigm is still one of rules, or “ethics”.

    But perhaps your god has provided, precisely, a world, and a possibility of life within it, in which you can either attain to some kind of health or fall into sickness. The goal would be similar to that of Buddhism— health, peace, love, integrity, union with God and with the cosmos…. “Sin”, in this case, would be to live in an unhealthy and destructive way that brought misery to you and those around you.

    As to the sources of morality, if there’s any revelation by your god in your world, does it reveal purely extrinsic “rules”, a “code of ethics”— or does it illumine the nature of life from within and help you to live in wisdom, understanding, and grace? Or are there other possibilities for what “revelation” is? What kind of revelation is the Bible?

    Developmental psychologist James Fowler, in his important but unreadable book, *Stages of Faith* (serviceable synopses exist on the internet), shows how different kinds of “faith” and hence of “morality” are related to the stages of human psychological and social growth. He traces the successful negotiation of each stage, and its failure. And he notes that most americans never get beyond the need for authority that characterizes the pre-teen years (the third of his six identifiable stages). If you listen to their discourse, not to agree or disagree but to hear the *kinds* of discourse they engage in, it seems that many people do in fact rely on a strong authoritarian moralism in which rules play a huge role. “The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and that’s good enough for me!” This explains a lot of our politics, in fact, especially on the conservative side.

    So “morality”, would seem to have different meanings. Is there a “code of ethics”, such that “morality” is about following or keeping those rules? Or is “morality” about a possibility inherent in life, in which you can be more, or less, true to the order of being in which you’re part, in which you can attain to health or fall into sickness, and become, or fail to become, a mature person, integrated in freedom, creativity, and love?

    I think just to state the question that way is to make the optimum obvious. Do you want to be Mark Driscoll or the Dalai Lama? Jonathan Edwards or Mahatma Ghandi? Pius IX (“Pio No-No”) or St Francis? Of course we all admire the latter of each of these more than the former. But that the rules, even the Bible, might be “relative” in some way can be quite scary. It usually takes a crisis of some kind— a major disappointment in a religious figure or community; coming to terms with something that renders you a permanent outsider, like being gay; a recognition that by applying the rules as absolutely as you thought you had you, you badly hurt someone you really love; or perhaps by long sojourn in a foreign culture— usually it takes something like these to force you to make your transcendental passage beyond the safe confines of religion and morality as you’ve received them, toward a wider, more open and inclusive horizon.

    I like to think that every traditional religion provides both authoritarian and integrative answers, but by nature the latter can be understood only when you’re ready, and those who can guide the disciple along those paths are relatively rare. Most people who have to leave home find themselves frighteningly alone, and very often have to give birth to themselves, often again amid tempest and earthquake. In any case, birth is hard and painful and dangerous, and the chances of coming out stillborn— of falling, for instance, into alcoholism, permanent distraction, various delusions, or simply a life of quiet despair— is very great. I’m not sure many make it.

    I think that whole cultures can undergo this kind of transcendental passage too, at least to some degree, even though of course at all times there will be people at all stages of development in something as big as a culture. But it seems that if a leader emerges not by political maneuvering or demagoguery but “by the power of an indestructible life”, as Hebrews says about Jesus in a context not altogether irrelevant— after bloodshed and puritanism and mayhem, there may be a new flowering of life. Gandhi was one example, perhaps; Rumi, another; Jesus and the Buddha, certainly. Or, without such guides, a people may just tacitly agree to take it down a notch and just live and let live, within whatever largely unspoken (and often unjust) arrangements a social order maintains itself. Woe, though, to that culture which is ruled by clerics, even if they dress in business suits!

    Another book i could recommend is A. Reza Arasteh, *Toward Final Personality Integration*. Thomas Merton wrote a review and reflection on the first edition of this book in *Contemplation in a World of Action*. Correspondents may well be interested at least in that article, which has the same title as an earlier edition of the book, “Final Integration in the Adult Personality”.

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      The goal of the Orthodox Church is union with God, not an impersonal god but the incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ.

      That entails coming to wholeness by His grace, prayer, almsgiving, sacramental worship, and living a life of repentance and forgiveness. Not judged by some external code, but by the ontological state of union(or disunion) with Christ. In many ways it is the rest of the story Buddhism lacks.

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    • Mina says:

      I think the central thesis behind your discussion is is morality inate or dictated? I think the answer is both! There is a sense of being born with a sense of morality. However, there is a point where ambiguities or narcissism needs to be controlled for the sake of societal stability. The issue is religion or no religion, God or no God, all creation has the interplay of two sets of laws, the laws “within” and the laws dictated by a leader. So just using the model seen by many societies, morality is not a major issue to worry about. Indeed, St. Paul discusses this at length in his letter to the Romans, how the Greeks have a law in their hearts that is just as viable as the Mosaic law, and are therefore judged by that.

      In a true Godless society, the establishment of laws and evil and sin are akin to a pluralistic society of commonly accepted norms among different religions and cultures. The question is do they care about eternal life and a unity with a deity. No! To them, I would imagine a true godless society no different than most people today. But a true godly society is a society that transcends accepted moral code and redefines the limits of standards for beyond exemplary behavior. Morality is never an issue for the godless, but “becoming gods” is always an issue for the godly, and a constant struggle.

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  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In how far is there a concern with a ‘given’, universal ‘law’, and the relation of particular articulated ‘laws’to it?

    Is Richard Hooker right when he says, “They err therefore who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason beside his will” (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I.ii.5)?

    Lewis has a paper (which I cannot put my finger on!) which, as I remember it, considers the relation of ‘law’ to ‘law-giver’: is a ‘law-giver’ above the ‘law’ given, or is there a ‘law’ above the ‘law-giver’, or can it be that ‘Law’ and ‘Law-giver’ at the highest are one?

    What other pre-modern examples of ‘godless law’ are there, other than (some varieties of?) ‘Buddhism’? (E.g., in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936), Tolkine writes, “It [= the northern imagination] can work, even as it did work with the gothlauss viking, without gods: martial heroism as its own end.”)

    Can either a ‘command ethic’ (e.g, ‘God wills that X iis good, Y, evil, but could equally will Y is good, X, evil’), or a godless legal positivism escape acting as if, and appearing to think that, some things are really ‘just’, others ‘unjust’?

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  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Guys, what do you think about this: whereas one might be able to argue that the person who freely commits an evil act benefits from that act in some way (the thief acquires goods he would not otherwise have had), the person who commits sin receives no benefit whatsoever. Sin always diminishes the sinner, for it destroys communion with God and thus renders the sinner less human.

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      Father Aidan, a person would not necessarily be seen as becoming less human in a godless world. Even today we see sinful acts being lionized as the most human thing to do, like aborting one’s child or euthanizing someone.

      Sin simply does not exist in a world that does not recognize a higher destiny for the human soul than the world.
      But there sure seem to be people who like to make pretzels in the heads about it.

      There is no such thing as a Godless world.

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    • jrj1701 says:

      Thank you Father, that is what I was trying to say, I also agree with what Michael Bauman states. Humans are the only creatures that seek a power in the universe greater than the individual, because we were created for union with God, this is what is written on our hearts and through the abuse of our free will we have darkened our perceptions of God. Some of us recognize this and strive to remedy this illness, coming to the realization that we cannot do it without Him. There are ambitious folks who recognize this need for God’s restorative power and try to harness it for personal gain, this has caused some of the Church’s division.

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  8. As of right now, in my class, we’ve learned that morals are the concentration on the “highest good”. Immorality would therefore cause us to break from the highest good. If God is the highest good, and God is love, sin would be the opposite of “love”. If we assume a godless world, we still have the highest good some where, hopefully, but due to the ontological argument, there is a highest good unless good doesn’t exist and so therefore, a godless world would be impossible to assume.

    It’s as St. Paul wrote that the moral law is written on the hearts of all men so that when non-Christians give glory for some sort of highest good (aka God), then the Christians he is writing to can already assume that these people have what is needed for salvation. So sin is therefore what causes us to be separated from the highest good but I will do my best to keep you updated on what I have learned, okay?

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