July 13, 2024

Q. How can I talk with my friends and family about sin in a way that they’ll listen to me? It seems like whenever I say the word “sin,” I get eyerolls and/or a glazed-over look.

This is, unfortunately, an all-too common reality. It has been observed for quite some time now that our culture has lost a sense of sin, which makes it difficult to talk about the significance of Jesus’ coming as man and his death on the cross and resurrection. After all, if there is no such thing as sin, why would we need a savior? Was Jesus’ horrific and tortuous death a colossal waste of time, energy and blood?

Surely not. And yet, we do face a difficulty in helping people in our cultural moment understand the reality of sin. What might we do about it?

Let’s begin by recognizing that although sin, as traditionally understood by Jews and Christians, may not be understood or accepted, the idea of certain behaviors or practices being taboo or out-of-bounds most definitely remains a reality. In every culture and society, there are certain things “good people just don’t do,” so to speak. That’s as true in the most secular American metropolis of the 21st century as it was in the most Catholic European village of the 13th century. We just don’t call those behaviors or practices “sin.”

So when talking with others about the biblical idea of sin, we can point out that even today, we recognize there are certain things that are, well, sinful, even if we don’t use the word “sin” to describe them.

We might go on to ask others to explain why certain things are wrong to do, and most often, the similarities to the biblical sense of sin and modern taboos continue to become clear. How? Because most people will say the things that are wrong are wrong because they are harmful to people (usually others, but often to the one doing them as well). Things that are taboo are such because they hurt people.

In a certain sense, then, modern taboos are a failure to love. Not “love” in the sense of strong affections for a person, but “love” in the sense of wanting what is best for another person (in theological language, to love is “to will the good of the other”). Because harming another is not what is best for them, so to speak, harming them is a failure to love them.

Here the connection between modern taboos and biblical sin is clear, in that sin is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains, “[a] failure in genuine love” (CCC 1849). Things that are sinful aren’t sinful because the Bible or the pope said so. They are sinful because they are a failure to love others, whether that be God, our neighbor, ourselves or some combination of these.

To describe an action as sinful, in other words, is synonymous with describing it as “unloving.” And that is a comparison between modern taboos and biblical sin that many people today will understand.

The difference between sin and taboo, however, comes in when we consider the rationality of these two concepts (sin and taboo). To be clear, we do not mean that committing sin is rational; in fact, the Catechism says that committing sin is an offense against reason (CCC 1849). Rather, we mean that the concept of sin is a rational one, and more rational than that of a taboo.

Why? Because what makes an action taboo is arbitrary, but what makes an action sinful is not. Consider: when it comes to a taboo, who decides what makes a given action taboo? By what moral or philosophical analysis can one arrive at the conclusion that a given action is taboo? There is none.

Not so in the case of sin. With each and every sin, we can explain why and how that action is sinful. Remember, to sin is to fail to love. So with every sinful act, we can demonstrate by reason how that action is a failure to love.

The key, then, to explaining “sin” to others is to show them the similarities between “sin” and “taboo,” but then to show how it is that a particular sin is in fact a failure to love.

Dr. Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.