The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Pointing Fingers

So, who’s to blame for this real or fake sin? In the counselor’s office, the answer to this question is very important. The individual chooses one of two options: self or other. I can blame myself for my failures and my wrong choices, which is called internal attribution. Holding this view generally leads to feelings of guilt and shame that can paralyze the individual, feeling hopeless to make any real change. Or I can blame someone else (my family, my friends, my enemies), surrounding circumstances (that bad driver, my coworker’s idiocy, this difficult choice), or some other element for my flaws and failures. This is called….you guessed it, external attribution. You guys and ladies are smart!

Al’s and Jay’s views tend to lead to opposite answers, of course*. Those who agree with Al would typically blame others (someone else came up with “sin” and told me about it or did something bad to me). Those who agree with Jay would typically blame themselves (I’m sinful, so I’m to blame).

Ellis' encouragement to blame others for our personal problems creates a mentality of victimhood: “I’m the victim of others’ misdeeds.” This victim mentality is certainly pervasive throughout our culture, likely including the Christian scene. This fact speaks to what many people already believe about sin: it’s not real, and it’s not my fault. But the victim mentality allows for the possibility of freedom from current flaws. In fact, in Ellis’ mind, it is the very imagining of sin that is the source of our problems: get rid of the idea and we are nearly rid of pathology. If we do away with the concept of sin, he would say, then we can believe that self-improvement is a real option.

Adams would say that people are sinful. Each individual is personally responsible for the wrong choices he made despite the circumstance in which it was made. This sinfulness goes to the core of our being, according to Adams’ Christian religion, so there’s no escape for the individual. Sin is who we are. Seen this way, there’s no hope for the individual get better. Sin is an incurable disease, and no amount of therapy can rid us of it; at best, thearpy can delay sin’s full consequences (think of chemotherapy and cancer as an analogy).

Considering the options, at this point, Al seems to have the better view: sin is a figment, and we can all get better. Furthermore, evidence suggests that "those who attribute bad events to personal sin are more likely to be depressed and angry than those who see themselves as sick or as victims of unfortunate circumstances" (131). Let's here it for the victim mindset!

However, there is a caveat we must consider about the Christian view of sin. We don’t yet have the full picture. Most of mainstream psychology sees what we’ve talked about so far. But it’s an incomplete understanding of sin.

Sin is not only personal (as we’ve already seen); it’s also universal. The Christian view of sin is that everybody’s a sinner because we all have the same sinful origin. This caveat equals the playing field. All humans are equal because they are all equally broken. It’s not that some are more sinful than others; everyone is equally sinful (it’s like a light, on or off--no in-between). Sin affects everything: “every attitude, behavior, relationship, and thought in our lives” (134).

Many mainstream counselors see only the personal aspect (and conclude religion is detrimental to psychological health), but this understanding is one-dimensional. When sin is seen as strictly personal, individual do feel guilty and ashamed, without hope for improvement (hence, the argument about religion's negative affects). Balancing the personal aspect with the universal aspect provides some important and necessary relief. Believing these two things (which are not contradictions), the individual can recognize that he or she is responsible for his or her choices, but has also reaped the consequences of sin that was not his or her fault. They’ve made bad decisions and sinned, yes, but they’ve suffered because of others’ sinful choices too. We can then see that we must blame ourselves and our environment, making both internal and external attributions. This balance is key to removing the detrimental consequences of overly personalized sin that produces excessive guilt and shame. We must have a broader understanding of sin.

When we understand the personal and universal nature of sin we can see that we are among friends in a funny way. McMinn writes, “If sin…affects all people and interferes constantly with our capacity to make good choices, then our attributions no longer need to be internal and shame producing” (134). We don’t have to go around blaming only ourselves, feeling guilty for how bad we are. He concludes, “Those who understand sin most accurately are able to make both internal (personal) and external (universal) attributions for the causes of their problems” (134).

This is an important conclusion to reach in our thinking about sin. We can relieve ourselves of “excessive self-condemnation” even while we better understand the “nagging ache” of sin in our lives (135).

This more complete understanding of the religious idea of sin helps us as we arrive at our final question, Are we sick or sinful? Is sin simply a psychological disease that therapy can effectively immunize us from? Or is sin in fact in our bones throughout our bodies that won’t die until it kills us?

That’s next.

*Most answers are simply the next step along the same path following the last question. That’s why the primary questions of religion and philosophy are so important.